City Looks to Help ‘Cure’ Illegal Apartment Problems in Everett

By Seth Daniel

Everything indicated, going back to the 1950s, that Nelson Chaves and his wife owned a three-family home on Wyllis Avenue.

Life-long residents testified to it.

One elderly woman even signed an affidavit in front of an attorney.

Even the old-timers in the neighborhood had only known the home to be a three-family. However, deep within the filing cabinets of City Hall were documents that predated everyone’s memory – and they indicated the home was only a one-family.

Soon, Chaves had a letter and a visit from the Inspectional Services Department (ISD) telling him the disastrous information, which threatened the funding and terms of his mortgage and his way of life.

“One day the City came by and said it was a single family home,” Chaves told the Board of Appeals in August, when his case for clemency was presented. “That was a shock to me. It’s been used for 50 or 60 years as a three-family. I’m not trying to add anything. I’m bringing it up to date and I now have to add sprinklers and three parking spots.”

Eventually, the Board did approve his petition, and Chaves and his wife exchanged an emotional embrace in relief – as their lives could now continue without the threat of a catastrophic change to their living situation due to no fault of their own.

“We have to enforce the law and we have to  make a decision that is consistent and leave it up to the board to make a good determination,” he told the Board.

All over Everett, living situations are coming under the microscope as ISD has become pro-active in finding dangerous living conditions and illegal units and helping to bring them up to code.

Soper said they are looking to reach out to property owners, real estate agents and others who might find themselves in a tough position.

“The mayor wants this done and it’s very important to him that we’re pro-active in finding these illegal, overcrowded and dangerous living units,” he said. “We want to do that and there are two ways of thinking about it. It’s the ‘Kill It or Cure It.’ A lot of inspectors will just kill it. They’ll say to get that out of there. It takes a lot of work to cure the problem…Many people in these situations don’t speak the language and other people don’t understand the laws…We want to help them cure the problem. I will walk over to the other side of the counter and tell them what the situation is and how they can cure it. We have to have that to help them. Our philosophy has been not to push them into a corner and fine them, taking their money. We want to work with them and see what can be done and if we can make it right.”

For the Chaves family, their situation was a problem that they didn’t make, and Soper said that is also very common in Everett. Many times, when selling a house, a realtor may not know what the legal occupancy is or they may actually conceal it. Soper said in the Chaves case, they had on record that the real estate agent had inquired and had received the legal status – a one-family – from ISD, but had never shared that with the Chaves family.

“That person said nothing to them and allowed that sale to go through,” he said. “You have so many people roped in and trapped by unscrupulous business people in the community. We really need to get out in the community that real estate agents need to be more pro-active in coming to our office to make sure they know what they’re selling.”

In fact, Soper and Mayor DeMaria have had meetings with State Rep. Joe McGonagle and Speaker Bob DeLeo to suggest that all residential real estate sales be accompanied by a legal use report. That document would show the legal numbers of units and would be shared with all parties during the sale.

“What ends up happening in these situations is they find out they can’t have the unit and then they can’t pay the mortgage because the revenue stream is squashed and they lose the house to foreclosure,” he said. “Then the house sits on the corner in Everett or any other community vacant. This is something that really affects people and I have empathy for people in this situation.”

Beyond that, though, there are certainly those who have tried to pull one over – whether on purpose or through ignorance. Because Soper and his crew of inspectors are very experienced in construction, when they do tenant fitness inspections, they often find out the legal occupancy for the home and they can then push the issue.

“All of the sheetrock and wiring have dates on them,” he said. “If you bought the house in 2010 and the dates on the wires say 2012, we know you’re responsible.”

In any case though, he said they want to be open to property owners who have illegal units, whether it’s by accident or through chicanery, so that they can get safe housing in the City. He said they have gone so far as to think about an amnesty program where owners could come to them and, without fees or penalties, organize a plan to make the units legal.

“I would like them to be able to come in here and lay all the cards on the table and go through a special permitting process,” he said. “We can make these units legal and get the census right, the unit count in the city right and ensure the units people in are safe.”

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