Ronan Park sits on a hill in Dorchester, overlooking the glittering Dorchester Bay. It has a sandy dog park and a baseball diamond. Local residents walk around the footpath and rest on sturdy benches.
But within sight of the park is a blemish the neighbors say has blighted the neighborhood for 15 years: 97 Mount Ida Road, a dilapidated house the city just can’t seem to get the owner to fix up.
The property was condemned by the Boston Inspectional Services Department, or ISD, back in 2003. Since then, it’s weathered a fire and a rat infestation. Every time the city tries to take action on the property, the owner, James Dickey, has taken the city to court, where he acts as his own lawyer.
Masoud Arab lives next door to the triple-decker, which looks like a haunted house. The windows are boarded up and scorched. The porch of the house sags like a hammock. Tall weeds grow into the first floor from the side yard.
“Anything can happen in it,” Arab said. “I’m always afraid. If someone brings someone into this house and kills him, who would say something?”
Cats and rats have free reign on the property, Arab noted, and the cars that idle in front of the house at night make him nervous.
Davida Adelman chairs the Greater Bowdoin/Geneva Neighborhood Association. She frequently walks her dog, Leilah, in Ronan Park, and has been a vocal critic of what she sees as the city’s and the court’s inaction on the property.
“I don’t understand why and how the court system can allow this to go on for 15 years,” she said. “I don’t get it.”
Andelman said dilapidated buildings like 97 Mount Ida Road don’t exist in wealthier neighborhoods or parts of the city with more political influence.
“If the mayor lived next door lived to that property, if ‘Buddy’ Christopher, the head of inspectional services, lived next to it, if the city councilor had to live with that 24/7, trust me— it wouldn’t be looking like that since 2003,” Andelman said.
The city’s Department of Neighborhood Development conducts a yearly survey to count distressed buildings in Boston, or vacant properties showing signs of disrepair. Last year, Dorchester had 26, despite a hot real estate market. Neither Back Bay nor Beacon Hill had a single one.
The disparities aren’t explained by the size of the neighborhoods— the rate of distressed buildings in Dorchester is nearly five times that of West Roxbury.
William “Buddy” Christopher, commissioner of ISD, said the city does not treat problem properties differently across neighborhoods.
“That’s not true on any level,” he said. “Properties throughout our city are treated absolutely the same. That is an absolute mandate from Mayor Walsh.”
Christopher himself has been working on the Mount Ida Road property since the beginning of Marty Walsh’s administration in 2014. He got permission from the mayor to raze the property in 2015, but Dickey fought the order.
“Everyone has the same rights in our city, so the owner of this property had the same rights to exhaust all of his legal options to get where he’s getting to,” Christopher said. “That’s the essence of our system.”
Andelman said Dickey has worked the court system. As for his property, she’d like to see it become housing for low-income elders.
“This is the most beautiful park in the city, it really is,” she said. “You just go up to the top of the hill and you have this gorgeous view of the harbor and, you know, it’s a shame we have something like 97 Mount Ida Road sitting up there, looking like that, and being a problem property since 2003.”
Last week, ISD found out a judge had placed the property into receivership, effectively taking it out of Dickey’s control. The house is now in the hands of a neutral third party, who will recommend next steps for the property. The Boston Housing Court is reviewing the receiver's report June 15.
James Dickey, who could not be reached for comment, has appealed the receivership.
Separately, the City Council is looking at the issue of empty apartments and storefronts in Boston. Councilors Andrea Campbell and Matt O’Malley, who co-sponsored a hearing earlier this week on vacancies, said they’re putting together a panel to brainstorm city-wide solutions.