Homes Without Toilets


By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  7/08/2002

The elderly Italian immigrants aren't eager to complain. For decades, they and at least a few other poor, non-English-speaking families in the North End have resigned themselves to taking the bad with the good.

The landlord of their century-old brick building is not raising rents, allowing them to live in one of the most expensive parts of the city. But she also is not investing in renovations, leaving them in an apartment where cleanliness means a sponge bath in the kitchen sink or a walk to the nearest pool house, and the toilet - shared with neighbors - is in a small closet in the hall.

"It's crazy people are still living in these illegal, primitive apartments, but it's a catch-22," said Giovanna Veitch, the family's social worker who runs a neighborhood outreach program for Action for Boston Community Development, a citywide antipoverty agency. "If they speak up, they fear they'll be evicted or the landlord will raise rents."

Despite ever-soaring real estate prices and gentrification that spruced up some of the shabbiest parts of Boston, more than 2,500 city residents reported living in homes without complete indoor plumbing, according to the most recent data from the 2000 Census.

Although that reflects just over 1 percent of the nearly 240,000 homes in the city, Boston ranks fifth, among the 50 largest cities in the United States, in the percentage of homes lacking sufficient plumbing.

News that people like the Italian immigrants, who asked to remain anonymous, live in such antiquated homes - which violate city codes - has perplexed housing officials.

"If some are still living like this, I would say it's very rare - much lower than what the census has reported," said Robert W. Consalvo, director of research at the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

One theory, he and others suggest, is that many of those who said they live without plumbing misunderstood the question. It asked: "Do you have COMPLETE plumbing facilities in this house, apartment, or mobile home; that is, 1) hot and cold piped water, 2) a flush toilet, and 3) a bathtub or shower?"

Tony Johnston, for example, said he misunderstood the question.

Like some 2,000 people living in one of the city's dwindling number of rooming houses - low-rent apartment buildings - the 43-year-old clothing-store manager has a sink but no shower, bath, or toilet in his unit. There is, however, a bathroom on his floor, which he shares with other residents in the building in Brighton.

"It seems to me a lot of people, probably many of those in rooming houses, got confused," said Mark Winkeller, executive director of Caritas Communities, a nonprofit, affordable housing company that owns several rooming houses in the city, including the one on Commonwealth Avenue where Johnston lives.

If there was one place in Boston where housing officials speculated others might be living without a full complement of plumbing it was on a 10-acre lot at the edge of the city near Dedham, the city's only trailer park.

Yet a visit to the Boston Trailer Park, with more than 100 mobile homes, proved that all the trailers not only have toilets, showers, and hot and cold water but everything from couches to washing machines to newly built decks.

"We have all the modern conveniences here," said Arthur C. Tanck, president of the trailer park's tenants association.

For some in the city, it's hard to believe anyone could still be living without private showers or toilets, even in the North End, which has some of the city's oldest buildings.

"It's been at least 20 years since I heard of someone living here without indoor plumbing," said Joanne Prevost Anzalone, president of Anzalone Realty, the largest real estate company in the North End. "I've been probably in every building in the North End. I just can't believe there are any apartments left without toilets."

While more people in Boston reported living without plumbing than anywhere else in New England, the percentage was higher in 11 other cities and towns, ranging from 4.4 percent of the residents in Lawrence to 1.2 percent of the population in Worcester, the census figures showed.

Nationally, the number of houses without plumbing dropped to about 670,000, to 0.6 percent, from about 1.1 million a decade ago. In 1940, when the Census Bureau began keeping plumbing records, about half of all homes lacked plumbing. Today, San Francisco, with 2 percent, leads major cities with homes without complete plumbing.

As for Boston, which ranks behind Miami, New York City, and Los Angeles, and is statistically equal to Oakland, Detroit, and Chicago, city officials and advocates doubt the numbers.

"It's against the law," said Lisa Timberlake, a spokeswoman for the Boston Inspectional Services Department, which monitors code violations. "We would have the unit condemned. It must have been a misunderstanding."

Jay Rose, manager of the housing unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, said: "It's astounding to me if these numbers are true, but I find them hard to believe. I thought we would have gotten way past that by now."

Unfortunately, however, the threat of losing an apartment is enough to keep some tenants quiet.

Veitch, the social worker, said that at least six of her clients still live in North End apartments without showers or toilets. Rather than complaining to the city, which could condemn the buildings, she's trying to persuade the landlords to renovate the timeworn apartments.

But because the investments would take tens of thousands of dollars, and the rents her clients pay are now less than half what they would pay at the market rate, she isn't optimistic they will take action any time soon.

"It's better to be in an apartment without a bathroom than on the streets," she said. "But people really shouldn't have to live like this anymore."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe