With the Sunday morning sunrise just a few hours away, the vacant three-decker at 8 Marie St. was ablaze.
Flames were billowing from the house when firefighters arrived at about 4 a.m. and leaping to the upper floors of neighboring homes. Ultimately, 17 people were left homeless by the six-alarm fire.
The history of the Meetinghouse Hill property – a structure well-known to city officials – highlights the barriers city agencies face when trying to deal promptly with problem properties as neighbors sound the alarm over safety risks and declining home values.
On Wednesday, Boston fire officials said the cause of the fire was still under investigation. Some 80 firefighters fought the flames, knocking down the bulk of the fire by around 5:30 a.m. and extinguishing hot spots until 9:15 a.m.
Boston Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald said initial estimates put the damage at about $2.5 million, but that number is likely to rise. The building where the fire started sustained extreme damage, he said, and though only the top two floors were affected by the flames, the water used to douse them “has only one place to go. Even if there wasn’t any fire on first floor, they’re going to be greatly damaged by water coming through the ceiling.”
The three deckers abutting 8 Marie St. in the rear sustained melted siding from the heat of the blaze.
Vacant for years due to renovations, the state of the building at 8 Marie St. had unnerved neighbors for some time.
Boston 311, the city’s assistance and reporting channel, shows 15 citizen complaints about the quality of the house since 2012. Service requests to the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) contain multiple reports from alarmed neighbors who were looking uneasily across the alleys between houses at what increasingly seemed a risky situation.
On April 14, the fire department was called for a small fire at the site, MacDonald said. Characterized as a trash fire, it was extinguished in a quick in-and-out job. But over the next few days, neighbors reached out to ISD, complaining of an absentee landlord, drug use on the back porches, and frequent small blazes on the porch.
Three days later, less than a week before the damaging blaze, a neighbor wrote that for the second time in four nights, “unknown people lit a fire underneath the rear first floor deck of 8 Marie St…. There is a burnt liquor bottle and drug paraphernalia near burnt pieces of wood. The neighbors at 6 and 10 are concerned that if a fire is lit and not caught that we could all be in serious danger. PLEASE HELP!”
A dozen people were displaced from 10 Marie St. after Sunday’s fire; five were displaced from No. 6.
Inspection violation notices going back to at least 2013 noted that the building was in poor condition. Two violations from 2017 described the “unsafe structure” as having “rear porches in complete disrepair,” citing rotted structural beams, joists, and stairs, as well as missing guards and floorboards.
The owner, Bonnie Glenn, was slowly making repairs, ISD officials said. “The course of events at Marie Street is an anomaly,” ISD commissioner William Christopher told the Reporter on Tuesday. “I’ve been working with [Glenn] as long as I’ve been commissioner.”
A contractor was doing rehabilitation work the day of the fire, Christopher said, aiming to get the building in habitable shape. “I really don’t like abandoned buildings,” he added. “They have a tendency to have problems.”
For those in the immediate neighborhood of Marie Street, a vacant, fire-gutted house is hardly an anomaly. Just a short walk away along the edge of Ronan Park, the three-decker at 97 Mt. Ida Rd. has been a longtime sore spot for the city and the neighborhood.
Condemned in 2003, and routed by an early afternoon fire in 2011, the blighted structure remains standing despite ongoing efforts to compel the owner to repair the property or get a court’s permission to demolish it.
“It’s exactly the same thing,” said neighbor Jennifer Coyne. “I mean, I don’t know the owner at Marie Street, but that’s the first thing I thought.”
City services are limited in their ability to take over and remove a building, even if, as is the case on Mt. Ida, the structure itself is so unsafe that Christopher will no longer allow his inspectors to enter it. Amidst regular citations and ISD violations, the city will try to build a rapport with a building’s owner to secure repairs without getting into an extended legal battle.
ISD’s approach is “to work with people to get results through cooperation,” Christopher said. “We really can’t force a person’s hand, but once it gets into the court system, our situation gets tied up.”
The standoff can drag out repair work for years.
In September 2015, Inspectional Services, with the mayor’s approval, recommended that 97 Mt. Ida Rd. be razed, only to see the process stalled again as the owner, James Dickey, filed for injunctions in various courts while failing to commit to any repair schedule.
“We were fully prepared to rip it down a year and a half ago,” Christopher said, adding, “The Mt. Ida issue really bothered me because we were in constant contact with the owner and he kept giving reasons why he couldn’t fix them.”
Over the last two years, the condition of the home has worsened. Coyne said rats are now a problem as is the potentially detrimental impact on neighborhood home values. “I can’t imagine that other people on the street aren’t grossed out by it,” she said.
The ineffectiveness of the city process seems to be an issue with landowner protections and the code itself, Coyne said, with neighbors feeling compelled to constantly prod elected officials and city departments to make moves.
“The city has their hands tied,” Coyne said. “They’re at the mercy of these people.”
Bowdoin-Geneva resident Davida Andelman, a participant in the Greater Boston Community Land Trust Network who walks her dog with her partner around the Ronan Park area three to five times a week, said a structure like the Mt. Ida Road property “negatively impacts the neighborhood where such a building is located.”
Neighborhoods like West Roxbury would not be subjected to this kind of long-term property blight, she asserts. With people taking advantage of the park more in warmer months, she wonders: “What kind of message is that sending people who are coming in and using the park day in and day out?”
Andelman said she would like the city to be able to place habitually neglected properties in the control of a receiver to repair/rehab or demolish and rebuild. With a broader discussion about affordable housing still consuming neighborhood activists, Andelman believes a neglectful property owner should be paid the assessed value and the property placed in a land trust and designated as affordable.
Last week, Christopher said, ISD finally got permission to go onto the site to clean and secure the property. They are filing to have the property placed into receivership, with a planned court date of May 5.
Even in cases where a house is in use, and neighbors report potential code violations, the process is slow without the full cooperation of a landowner.
A three-decker at 96 Milton Ave., illegally used as a boarding house for some 18 people, remains in uncertain status. Although a judge in February ruled that no new tenants can move into the building, neighbors say that ruling is not being respected.
“That was the agreement put into place; we just have to enforce it,” Christopher said. That depends on a tenant inviting them into the building to inspect. “We’re working on a relationship with tenants to allow us to come in,” he said.
The Milton Avenue saga has dragged out since July 2016, when an abutting mother found that a number of high-risk sex offenders appeared to be residing in the house. Most recently, owner Kelvin Sanders made an eleventh-hour withdrawal for a proposal before the zoning board to convert the building into a 24-unit lodging house.
Neighbors had spoken out firmly against that proposal for months.
So the fate of the structure is in limbo. The ruling stated that the owner could either make fixes to restore the building to the three-family for which it is zoned, or apply for a lodging house permit. With the lodging permit withdrawn, neighbors and officials hope the three-family route will proceed.
These three Dorchester three-deckers, and other properties like them, have proved difficult for the city to manage and neighbors to live with. They have tied up up city resources and turned residents into de facto watchdogs unsure of their effectiveness.
“It’s something that’s a constant battle,” Christopher said, “but partnering with the community gives us a much better set of eyes on the ground.”
Jennifer Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @JennDotSmith on Twitter.