The rat barrage that grew worse with the pandemic hasn't eased and now residents are having to deal with cars sustaining thousands of dollars of damage from rats chewing through wiring and asphalt surfaces collapsing from all the rat burrows under them on top of all general grossness of seeing rat families having giant family reunions in people's yards and in local parks.
"I actually hit a rat on M Street," Luanne O'Connor, president of the City Point Neighborhood Association in South Boston, said at a city-council rat hearing today. "I ran over it while I was looking for a parking space, for two hours, so I didn't feel bad for him."
In the South End, the Union Park Neighborhood Association has formed its own rat committee, but that comes too late for one resident, driven so mad by the rats that he spent $25,000 completely replacing his backyard and garden with a completely "hardscaped" granite-edge surface and that still didn't work, so he gave up and is now looking to move out of Boston altogether, the association's Bob Williams told councilors.
Rat management in Boston is currently a melange of efforts by several different departments, including different parts of ISD, Public Works, and even the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. John Ulrich, ISD's assistant commissioner of environmental services for ISD, told the councilors he's as close to a "rat czar" as the city has, overseeing a team of 13 inspectors licensed to do pest control. A 14th should be hired, soon, he said. That would still be one fewer inspector than the city had in 2020, the last time councilors had a hearing on the issue.
Controlling, if not eradicating, rats, takes more than putting out baited rat traps in problem areas and in sewers - and it's ISD's code-enforcement division that writes the citations for improper trash storage that go to landlords and homeowners.
Ulrich said rats thrive when they have access to food, for example, scraps from restaurants or ripped open trash bags, water, from clogged storm drains, and shelter - anywhere they can dig burrows, which is almost anywhere. Controlling those, he said, means a concerted effort by both the city and residents.
Ulrich added the city had to stop using one useful tool against rats - dumping dry ice in rat burrows, which would boil off into carbon dioxide that would suffocate rats - after some company got an EPA permit for using dry ice against rats and the federal government decided that meant licensed pest inspectors could only use that company's dry ice, and it's no longer available in Massachusetts. The city did go out and buy a couple of gizmos that generate a stream of carbon monoxide that is pumped into rat burrows to kill them, he said.
But he and other officials said the city is now working on a Chinatown garbage pilot to come up with ways to control rats, in particular in denser Boston Proper neighborhoods where residents have no room for trash barrels and where restaurants are sometimes less than fastidious about their dumpsters. One idea might be a sort of community dumpster for a given street that businesses could use to deposit their refuse for city pickup.
He added that educating residents on what they can do to keep rats from getting into trash is vital as well.
The plan can't come soon enough for City Councilor Ed Flynn, who represents Chinatown and who said that, even with a bad leg, when he saw a contractor just toss some trash on Tyler Street near Tai Tung Village, he started to run after the guy's truck, to at least get his license plate number. Given how crowded Chinatown is, he said, he was able to stay close to the truck all the way down Tyler and then Beach, before the guy finally shook him off by driving into the Theater District.
After Ulrich told councilors that his team currently works basically weekday business hours, Flynn - who pushed for an increase in the city's anti-rat budget - said that wasn't good enough, because Fridays and weekends are prime problem days and 311 calls about rats can't really wait until Monday. Separately, ISD's code-enforcement division expects to hire new staff within two weeks that will let it respond to complaints 24 hours a day.
At-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune, who lives in Hyde Park near the Mattapan line, said she's particularly tired of complaints seeming to be ignored in those two neighborhoods. She pointed to one notorious set of dumpsters on Tennis Road in Mattapan that have long gone uncovered - and which she said sit in front of people's homes.
"That would not fly in most neighborhoods," she said. Ulrich agreed, said he knew exactly which property she was talking about and said part of the problem is that the landlord has been battling with the city in court over the issue.
City Councilor Kenzie Bok, whose district (Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Fenway, Mission Hill) is full of people who would have no place to put trash barrels, said that now that the city has started a pilot compost program, the BPDA needs to make garbage disposal a formal part of its approval project for large buildings - the city should make developers show how they're going to handle composting and rat control.
City Councilor Liz Breadon, whose district includes large numbers of absentee landlords and towers run by management companies, and which is full of rat-burrow-disturbing large construction projects at present, questioned why the city didn't seem to be doing as good a job at rat control now as it did 30 years ago, when it gained national attention for a program to deal with what was supposed to be a flood of rats unleashed by construction of the Big Dig.
She added the city needs to do more to make large landlords do their part, to put "more pressure on the bad actors who need to improve."
"I don't want to be coming back here next year and having the same conversation," she said.
Some of her constituents have started organzing their own anti-rat effort.
One official said the city has not put a lien on any properties due to trash issues since 2016, due to confusion between code inspectors and the city assessors over who owned property that would have liens put on it. Bok said that's an IT issue that should be solvable.
The officials of the two neighborhood associations agreed something needs to be done - and not just repeating what the city has done over the past couple of years, which Williams called the definition of insanity.
He said rats love the soy-based plastics that many car manufacturers now use for wiring harnesses. He said one resident had to pay $9,000 for damage done by hungry rats, and that he knows of other residents who have faced bills of between $800 and $2,000 due to rat diners.
O'Connor suggested that for people who live in triple deckers, the city should consider handing out smaller hard-plastic containers - the size of the old recycling bins the city used before it went to wheeled large containers for trash, which she said would be ideal for seniors and Millennials, to give rats fewer plastic trash bags to chew throught.
But in the meantime, O'Connor reported that, in addition to flattening a rat on M Street, the other night she saw "a frenzy" of a half dozen rats in her neighbors yard. And she recounted what happened when neighbors, after trying dry ice, which didn't work, set traps baited with peanut butter - it also snared other, more innocent animals:
"There was a squirrel, that was a casualty of war, there was a bird, that was a casualty of war," she said. "So what are we going to do? We're all God's creatures, but not rats. They've got to go."