A 311 Deep Dive: What Are Bostonians Complaining About?

As one city councilor put it, the issues aren’t “sexy,” but problems with trash, parking enforcement and used needles play a big factor in taxpayers’ quality of life in the Hub

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Ever wonder what your neighbors like to complain about? In Boston, you don’t have to guess.

That’s thanks to the city’s 311 system, which tracks resident reports across the Hub in real time.

The NBC10 Boston Investigators analyzed hundreds of thousands of complaints to see what Bostonians’ top pain points are, along with how fast city departments address the problems.

On a beautiful summer day, Julina Kanarian zipped around the city streets with daughter Linnea in tow. The pair made a pit stop to enjoy the swings at Ringgold Park in the South End neighborhood.

As her 13-month-old played nearby, Kanarian told us she is reluctant to ever let Linnea too far out of reach.

“I don’t feel I can let her just toddle through a park. You never know what she’s going to pick up and put in her mouth,” Kanarian said.

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Julina Kanarian and daughter, Linnea

There’s a reason way Kanarian, a married therapist who’s lived in the South End since 2014, remains constantly on guard.

On several occasions, she’s found used needles on the ground while walking through the neighborhood. Recently, she found one right outside her front door.

Those discoveries prompted 311 reports to the City of Boston. Kanarian said she has also submitted complaints about trash piled up on the streets and even human waste on sidewalks.

“It’s frustrating,” she expressed. “There’s sometimes big messes on the sidewalks that make it impossible for strollers and wheelchairs.”

NBC10 wanted to know what else people in Boston are complaining out, so we analyzed more than 375,000 reports submitted since the beginning of 2020. The complaints, often accompanied by photos, provide a never-ending slideshow of what’s bugging Bostonians.

The research shows Boston Public Works receives roughly half of all 311 complaints. That’s the department in charge of trash and street cleaning.

Another top source of frustration for residents? Parking enforcement. Reports detail everything from blocking hydrants to swiping a “resident only” space to abandoned vehicles.

“Please tow that car out,” wrote a Jamaica Plain resident on July 23. “It’s been here for the past seven months.”

The accompanying photo of the yellow car displayed a large “tow me” written across the windshield.

The ongoing challenge of addiction also generates thousands of complaints for used needles that litter the landscape, an issue that rose during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We saw an increase in street activity during the pandemic because of the closure of daytime services, reduced access to treatment and shelters, increased releases from jails and prisons, closure of courts, and closure of public restrooms and access to bathrooms,” said Caitlin McLaughlin, a spokesperson for the Boston Public Health Commission.

NBC10 Boston
Used needles in Ringgold Park in Boston's South End

A couple days after we spoke with Kanarian at Ringgold Park, someone reported needles at that location in plain sight. We watched as one of the city’s mobile sharps teams, which respond to 311 calls seven days per week, plucked them from the path and disposed of them safely.

Across the city, records show needle complaints are addressed in less than an hour. In one instance, we showed up at a South End home within 10 minutes of needles being reported on the front steps. They were already gone when we arrived.

In January, the City also launched a pilot program in the Mass and Cass area that offers a cash incentive for the safe disposal of syringes. In the first five months of the program, workers safety collected, sterilized and shredded more than 371,000 syringes, according to McLaughlin.

Our analysis showed there have been 600 fewer needle complaints in that area this year compared to the same time period in 2020. McLaughlin said the latest mayoral budget included funds to make the pilot program permanent.

Stephen Fox is the chair of the South End Forum, an umbrella organization that represents 17 different neighborhood associations.

Fox told us he believes 311 works well because it allows residents to snap a photo from anywhere. They can then monitor the electronic paper trial from when their complaint is opened to when a city worker shows up to clean up the mess, tow a vehicle or issue a code violation.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to talk about neighborhood directly with city services,” Fox said. “We embrace the use of the tool probably more than anybody else.”

The numbers show Fox is correct.

In the city’s second council district, there were more than 46,000 complaints in 2020. That figure more than doubled the number of 311 reports in several other council districts.

Councilor Ed Flynn knew the residents he represents are vocal, but the 311 analysis made that clear.

“That information you provided me was very helpful,” Flynn said. “Data is critical as we look at basic city services.”

Flynn’s district is a dense and socioeconomically diverse pocket of the city. The borders pass through Chinatown, South Boston, the Seaport and the South End. Multi-million dollar historic brownstones sit just blocks away from the homelessness and opioid crisis along Mass and Cass.

311 complaints run the gamut, but Flynn said the common denominator is quality of life. As we spoke with him, a woman stopped to tell us about calling 311 to report roof and elevator problems at her public housing building.

“They’re not sexy issues, but they’re the issues resident demand that city government tackle,” Flynn said. “If those issues aren’t working for you, nothing is working for you.”

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