City Council tackles rodent issue in Boston neighborhoods

     The City Council Committee on City Services and Innovation Technology held a hearing on August 1 regarding pest control in the city. This has been a major issue in several neighborhoods, including Beacon Hill and the South End, where residents have worked to come up with solutions. The sponsors of this docket are Councilors Ed Flynn, Liz Breadon, and Erin Murphy.

     In his opening remarks, Councilor Flynn said that in working with Mayor Wu, “we were able to significantly increase the budget” for pest control. Flynn also called for things like increased enforcement, a public awareness campaign, and ensuring that trash is properly disposed of. He also said it’s a priority to ensure that residents who do not speak English are provided with resources about this issue. He said that there are “significant rodent-related control issues” in the South End and Mass/Cass area.

     “This is a problem that I see every day,” said Councilor Kenzie Bok, who also chairs this committee. As a Beacon Hill resident, Bok said that she sees the “proliferation of rats Councilor Flynn mentioned.” She said that this issue needs to be prioritized, as rats carry diseases and are affecting residents.

     John Ulrich, Asst. Commissioner in the city’s Environmental Services Department, heads the rodent control operation in Boston. He spoke about what the city does now to address the rodent problem.

     He said that right now, the city has “13 inspectors who are licensed pest control applicators,” and is currently interviewing for a 14th.

     Ulrich said that the “main function of how we address rodent control in the city” is to “enforce the state sanitary code.” Additionally, Boston has its own “site cleanliness ordinance,” which helps to regulate dumpsters and construction projects as well as the Boston Water and Sewer Commission when they complete sewer repairs.

     When reporting rodent activity, Ulrich said that people should use the 311 app for the most effective response. He said that through the app, a resident “should receive a response from an inspector in 24 to 48 hours, and contact information should be there.”

     Rodent activity is based on three things, Ulrich said: food, water, and shelter, which are typically easy for rodents to find in Boston because of its density. The City writes violations based on these three things, and also baits sewers and conducts pest control on city owned land and parks. The city also has two machines that utilize carbon dioxide inside rat burrows.

     In residential areas, Ulrich said that “one of our best tools is education,” and the city currently offers educational tools in six languages. Additionally, four of the current inspectors are bilingual.

     Inspectors do walkthroughs of city neighborhoods, and in the past nine months, two walkthroughs per week have been completed, Ulrich said, and they have likely hit every neighborhood two times.

     Councilor Flynn asked about the hours that these inspectors work. Ulrich said that there are no inspectors who work on weekends, and four inspectors start work at 4am during the week, three more start at 6am, and everyone else starts at 8am. There is one inspector who works a 10 hour shift Monday through Thursday until 5:45pm, he said.

     Flynn was concerned about the lack of weekend inspectors, as he believes there is a lot of activity to be monitored on the weekends with restaurants.

     “I know it’s going to cost money,” Flynn said, but it’s “critical that we have active engagement from city officials on the weekends dealing with this issue. I want to make sure that we get back to residents with an update on exactly what we’re doing in these neighborhoods.”

     There was also discussion about an anti-litter pilot in the city, as well as dealing with absentee landlords and whether fines are an appropriate solution for issues. Liens on properties were also discussed.

     Councilor Bok also asked about rodent “zap boxes” which have been utilized in Somerville to electrocute rats.

     “We had a meeting with Modern Pest a while back to look at those,” Ulrich said, but he said that it is a service that Modern Pest provides and “nothing we can purchase at this point,” so “we continue to look for stuff like that and we’ll continue to have another conversation with Modern about it.

     Bok spoke about neighborhoods like Beacon Hill, where very few people have room to store a trash barrel outdoors and have to place their bags of trash directly on the sidewalk, which invites rats to pretty easily enjoy a plethora of food scraps. She talked about the pop-up trash barrel pilot that was unsuccessful, as many people’s bins, including her own, were stolen, and also did not prevent the rats from getting to the trash.

     Bok also mentioned the change in trash pickup hours from 7am to 6am, which has led to many residents placing their trash outside overnight, increasing the rat problem. She said that although the trash truck does not even come until 11am in many cases, people still leave their trash out the night before in case it does come as early as 6am.

     “How do we give people the confidence that they can put their trash out the same day?” she asked.

     Bob Williams of the Union Park Neighborhood Association (UPNA) spoke about the organization’s Rodent Remediation Committee, which has worked to alleviate the rat problem in that area of the South End.

     He said that a total of $13,000 of damage on four different cars was caused by rodents, and property damage from burrows has also been reported. “One yard had 10-12 burrows that they couldn’t get rid of,” Williams said.

     Williams also talked about an issue with kitchen grease from a local restaurant being washed out onto the street and attracting rats to the water and grease.

     He said that he is aware of residents using exterminators, but traps are often not serviced, “acing as a kind of place where the rats can hide.”

     He said that two homeowners in the neighborhood have sold their homes and moved out of the city because of the rat issue.

     UPNA has talked about purchasing trash barrels for residents to ensure that as much trash is kept off the ground as possible. The bins would be purchased from a company called Toter at a discounted rate, and will likely have to be delivered to Union Park for residents to pick up. 

     Bok suggested that UPNA coordinate with the city on a more formal pilot of these bins.

     Williams said that it can be challenging for UPNA to work around the logistics of the bin distribution, as it is a neighborhood organization. The bin purchasing through Toter would be a “one time deal,” with “no ability to follow up and do this over and over again.”

     He said that based on the typical building in the neighborhood, the 96 gallon bin is recommended.

     UPNA President Abigail Cohen talked about Councilor Breadon’s point that she did not want to be having the same conversation about rats next year.

     “We’ve all been making reports for over a year,” Cohen said. The city completed a walkthrough in the neighborhood in May of last year and then again this year.

     “We thank everyone so much for being present and listening to us.” She wanted to know what the city’s specific action steps would be, and that there needs to be a citywide effort to remediate rats. “It can’t just be little pockets of the community,” she said.

            Bok said that the Council has received “substantial written testimony” regarding this issue, and she supports small scale bins and a task force as called for by Councilor Flynn. She thinks everyone needs to be “on the same page” about the issue, and added that “I think this is going to remain an open matter for the Council.”

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