The illegal rooming house occupied by several moderate-to-high-risk sex offenders on Milton Avenue in Dorchester was the subject of intense discussion at a neighborhood meeting last week. While community members sought to understand why they were not alerted about the offenders’ presence and pondered their options, some officials sounded notes of caution in light of anti-discrimination rulings.
The session of the Dorchester Unified Neighborhood Association (DUN) attracted dozens to the basement cafeteria of Boston International High School last Wednesday where group president Dawn Barrett, a mother of two boys whose property abuts 96 Milton Ave., noted that if she had not been uneasy enough to check directly with the state Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB), neighbors would not have known that multiple high-risk offenders lived in three-decker at the corner of Milton Avenue and Stockton Street.
“I felt that going to the police station, going to the SORB was not enough,” Barrett said. “Because if you weren’t suspicious, guess what? You weren’t looking.”
Barrett and other concerned residents sounded the alarm on the house in August, alerting the city’s police, elected officials, and Inspectional Services Department that seven Level 3, or “high-risk,” sex offenders and several Level 2, or “moderate-risk,” offenders appeared to be living in the building. Most of the Level 3 offenders were convicted of a form of assault or rape of children under the age of 16.
A cadre of police representatives attended the meeting, including patrol division Deputy Superintendent Bernard O’Rourke, District B-3 commander Captain Haseeb Hosein, Sgt. Detective Michael Casinelli of the sex offender unit, and officers from the investigative services and community outreach sections of the department.
With respect to the neighborhood alert, Officer Cynthia Brewington noted that “any time there is a cluster of sex offenders, that is when notification has to be made. If it is not a cluster, then we are not required to notify.” A cluster is defined as three or more Level 3 offenders. If called, officers, making themselves highly visible, can come by the neighborhood for about an hour, said Brewington, who added: “Please know there are not enough officers in our district to be on your street at all times.”
If any of the men on the registry are seen interacting with children, residents should call the police immediately, Deputy O’Rourke said. Level 3s “are the ones you have to worry about,” he added, noting that informed residents should know for whom to look out around schools, libraries, or other areas with high concentrations of children.
There are thousands of such offenders across the state and in Boston, the police pointed out. According to the registry board, Dorchester houses 163 Level 2 sex offenders and 122 Level 3 offenders. The whole of Boston houses 508 and 409, respectively. These individuals are permitted to live together, provided their housing is being operated to code.
In September, after calls from the Milton Street neighborhood, Inspectional Serviceds ISD cited the landlord after multiple unsuccessful attempts to gain entry to No. 96 to assess the living situation. The three-family dwelling, which contains 12 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms, is owned by Kelvin Sanders of Last Layer Realty, LLC, according to city assessing records.
At the meeting, ISD Commissioner William Christopher said that inspection of the property revealed that it was being used as an illegal rooming house: individual rooms were rented out, and residents shared common bathroom and kitchen space on each floor. To operate as such a facility, Christopher said, the building must be zoned and licensed specifically as a lodging house. A two-step public process, including a Zoning Board of Appeals hearing and subsequent licensing, would be necessary.
In a phone interview this week, Christopher told the Reporter that through “the tenacity of the ISD employees,” they were able to enter the home and make an inspection. The violation in place is no longer a failure to allow entry, but illegal operation of a lodging house. The landlord has a 30-day period, concluding on Nov. 26, to begin restoring the home to a normal three-family, apply for an occupancy change, or be brought into housing court.
As to that process, state Rep. Dan Cullinane spoke up at the meeting, saying he would stand with the community in opposing any change to the building’s permitting.
For his part, state Rep. Russell Holmes was the most forceful in urging caution when considering action about the matter. “Let’s remind ourselves these are people, and they have rights,” he said. “Their rights have been defined by the Supreme Judicial Court, and we in the Commonwealth must follow those rights. Now, what we will try our best to do is… to say, hey, is this housing the right type of housing for them, and can we maybe use better avenues to remove folks.”
Holmes noted that the SJC had ruled unanimously in August 2015 against residency restrictions on sexual offenders, likening the limitations to the forcible removal of Indian tribes in the 19th century and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Even Level 3 sex offenders cannot be barred from living near schools, parks, or playgrounds, the court said.
Weymouth residents Coreen Aikens and Amanda Hill came to speak at the meeting. They were vocal objectors when it was discovered that sexual offender Richard Gardner had moved back into their community after nearly three decades in prison. He had been convicted of, and later admitted to, the kidnapping and raping of several boys in the 1980s and he had had his original sentence of 190 years reduced.
“What we ended up finding out, just like everyone else here, is there’s no laws protecting children,” Aikens said. “There’s no laws protecting kids.”
She and Hill have started a petition for a statewide law that would impose a mandatory sentence of 50 years for rape; prevent Level 2 or 3 sex offenders from registering as homeless or living with 500 feet of a school, daycare, or playground; and require GPS tracking for such offenders.
Holmes, the chair of the Black and Latino legislative caucus, said he will never support mandatory minimums, given their history of disproportionately impacting minority communities. He and Rep. Cullinane noted that similar laws have already been struck down under the SJC’s ruling.
“This is the beginning of the conversation, and I know you all want to sign the petition, but I think it’s important to dive deep into the issue and to really understand the consequences that could happen,” said state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry, whose office has worked closely with City Councillor Andrea Campbell’s office since the alert was raised. As far as the normal eviction process, “we will continue to work with all of you to move that forward,” said Forry.” There are residents at 96 Milton Ave. who did not know about, or were uncomfortable with, the situation in the three-decker, Forry noted.
One woman at the meeting was near tears at times. She said she had been in Boston for four months after leaving Florida, and was relocated to the house through a shelter, having no idea who else was in the building until Dawn Barrett put up fliers on her street.
“The idea that even if the house is no longer an illegal boarding house, and they convert it back to a normal three-family, we still have the same issue,” said Julia Mejia, DUN’s vice president. “So the safety concerns still exist.”