A Great Idea: Inspection By-law Has a Lot of Merit

The report by Interim Building Commissioner John Barrett to the Town Council last week in which Barrett informed the council that there are in the vicinity of 300-500 illegal apartments in Winthrop should come as a surprise to nobody.

Indeed, for anyone in an official capacity in town to proffer surprise at that statistic is akin to when Captain Renaud (Claude Raines’s character) in the movie Casablanca pretends to be taken aback that gambling may be going on in Rick’s Cafe.  “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here,” asserts Renaud, who then is handed his winnings by a croupier.

The problem of illegal apartments has been Winthrop’s proverbial dirty little secret ever since the 1960s, when some homeowners began to convert the attics and basement areas in their large homes into small apartments for stewardesses and other employees at Logan Airport who needed small and inexpensive places to live. Too, many homeowners used these extra spaces in their homes for so-called in-law apartments to care for aging family members.

Winthrop attempted to address the proliferation of illegal apartments with a zoning by-law in the early 1990s which basically granted amnesty to those who had been in violation of the law by allowing those property owners to obtain a special permit that would convert their heretofore illegal apartment units into legal ones. The catch however, was that in order for a unit to qualify for a certificate of occupancy, it had to become compliant with the building and fire safety codes. In addition, the amnesty period extended for a period of only one year.

If our memory serves us correctly, roughly 100 apartments qualified to obtain special permits, thereby legitimizing their existence. However, it was well-known at the time that many property owners, realizing that it might cost them tens of thousands of dollars to bring their illegal apartments up to code, did not take advantage of the special permit by-law.

However, the matter of illegal apartments is not the only problem that needs to be addressed vigorously by our town officials. Many legal apartments fall far short of the building and sanitary codes that are essential to ensuring that our housing stock is both safe and habitable, not only for those who live in those premises, but for neighbors and members of our police and fire departments who often must respond to these buildings in emergency situations.

The wiring, plumbing, and heating work that has been done over the years (often by handyman homeowners themselves) without proper permits and inspections are now getting older and older and becoming more and more likely to turn into a public safety hazard. Moreover, many of the illegal apartments in town do not have a legitimate second means of egress in the event of a fire.

The proposal by Police Chief Terence Delehanty that Winthrop institute a sanitary fitness ordinance is both reasonable and long overdue. In nearby communities, landlords are required to renew their certificates of occupancy every year and their apartment units are subject to an annual inspection.

Such an ordinance would be wholly appropriate and would be just another part of “doing business” as a landlord which, after all, is a moneymaking venture.

The ball is in the Town Council’s court and we urge them to tackle Chief Delehanty’s idea forthwith. We have no doubt that in our small community, every Council member knows someone who is an owner of an illegal or uninspected apartment. But it is time for the Council members to put aside personal interests and do what is needed to make our town is as safe and as attractive a community as it can be.

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