Clearing the dishes

December 8, 2010 | Apartments, Boston, Law, Regulation, Utilities, Zoning

By: David A. Smith


Every now and then, what starts out as a lark to mock The Boston Herald‘s headline-grabbing outrage turns into an issue much deeper, more complicated, and global than might at first appear.  So it is with the tortuous tale of sprouting satellite dishes:


Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
   Their shoes were clean and neat–
And this was odd, because, you know,
   They hadn’t any feet.


More than four years after the City Council took aim at satellite dishes, lower-income rental neighborhoods remain festooned with the eyesores — still angled skyward off the sides of buildings long after their owners have moved on — while well-heeled areas remain free of the dish blight.



No blue-collar snobbery here – no, we’re to understand that somehow the rich just idly brush away this concave pestilence, which preys upon helpless poor people.


Look what they’ve done to the neighborhood


The reality, of course, is more complex.


Back Bay and Beacon Hill are historic districts with strict rules to prevent unsightly modern devices from marring the charm.


But neighborhoods such as East Boston, Dorchester, the Fenway, Allston-Brighton and Mission Hill, lacking such lah-dee-dah legal protections, are rotten with satellite dishes, with sometimes more than a dozen affixed to a single dwelling.


And they breed like rabbits, don’t they?


My God, rotten with satellite dishes. 


They are attached to porches, terraces and even trees.


Turn your back for an instant, and look what happens!


Housing projects also are mushrooming with satellite dishes. One unit at the Old Colony projects in Southie sports three on a single south-facing window.


“They are an urban blight. They are ugly,’’ lamented City Councilor Sal LaMattina, who represents Eastie, the North End and Charlestown and heads up a City Council task force that was assigned to address the problem. “And they can ruin an entire neighborhood.” 


No hyperbole there, none at all. 



LaMattina laments the ruination of his neighborhood 


Councilor LaMattina is not alone in wishing that somehow all his residents could get great reception from the wealth of channels they desire, without the unsightly receivers. 


The Walrus and the Carpenter
   Were walking close at hand:
They wept like anything to see
   Such quantities of sand:
“If this were only cleared away,”
   They said, “it would be grand!”


Though Councilor LaMattina diplomatically observes that “We are working with the dish companies to come up with a solution,” neither he nor the city council have the legal hammer they would like, for the dishes are on private property.  As we saw in Who owns the roof?, that property is the landlord’s, but then within an apartment, some of the real estate is the resident’s to alter:


Dish companies are protected by a 1996 federal law, the Over-the-Air Receptions Devices Rule, which bars restrictions that preclude decent reception.


The rule – which is in fact statutory, hence not subject to complete evisceration through regulation – is actually a consumer-protection or free-markets statute.  In multi-unit structures, telephony and cable TV wiring – the intra-property infrastructure – run through the owner’s property, and forward-thinking self-interested owners had been providing broadband and cable TV as a monopoly service.  If you wanted it in your apartment, you paid the landlord’s vendor, at the landlord’s price.  That delivery monopoly was broken in the late 1990s, as broadcast satellite TV quality improved dramatically – but owners then sought to block residents from installing dishes. 


If people want to get satellite, nobody’s gonna stop ’em


They lost, and in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Section 207 directed the FCC to implement the rule: Congress amended


Effective January 22, 1999, the Commission amended the rule so that it also applies to rental property where the renter has an exclusive use area, such as a balcony or patio.


The rule allows local governments, community associations and landlords to enforce restrictions that do not impair the installation, maintenance or use of the types of antennas described above, as well as restrictions needed for safety or historic preservation.  


Sorry, Councilor LaMattina, the rule is decisive – you cannot prohibit people from installing dishes on their own balconies, and under the supremacy clause (Article VI, Clause 2), the Federal statute trumps any contradictory local ordinance. 


So the City Council is mulling whether to fine landlords, using the green ticket rules passed earlier this year, said Councilor-at-Large Felix Arroyo.


Don’t go down that gulley, councilor Arroyo


I see no basis that the city could fine landlords for their failure to prevent residents from legally installing a device on what the Federal government has explicitly ruled is their property.  The Rule is completely clear:


Q: If I live in a condominium or an apartment building, does this rule apply to me?


A: The rule applies to antenna users who live in a multiple dwelling unit building, such as a condominium or apartment building, if the antenna user has an exclusive use area in which to install the antenna. “Exclusive use” means an area of the property that only you, and persons you permit, may enter and use to the exclusion of other residents. For example, your condominium or apartment may include a balcony, terrace, deck or patio that only you can use, and the rule applies to these areas.


A man’s balcony is his castle


In other words, the rule makes emplacement of a satellite dish into a property right that is encompassed within a standard leasehold interest – which, personally, I think is a sound principle:


Q: Does the rule apply to residents of rental property?


A: Yes. Effective January 22, 1999, renters may install antennas within their leasehold, which means inside the dwelling or on outdoor areas that are part of the tenant’s leased space and which are under the exclusive use or control of the tenant. Typically, for apartments, these areas include balconies, balcony railings, and terraces.


Renters are not required to obtain the consent of the landlord prior to installing an antenna in these areas. The rule does not apply to common areas, such as the roof or the exterior walls of an apartment building.


In light of this absolute tenant right, how could the landlord possibly be held responsible?  There are only the limited exceptions one would immediately envision:


Safety is one exception. Historic preservation is another – which is how US Senator John Kerry on Beacon Hill and Pats quarterback Tom Brady on Commonwealth Avenue and their neighbors avoid having big aesthetically displeasing parabolas poking out of the ivy.


Trust the Herald to inject a classless false note of class conflict:


Chris Carron, 40, a teacher who works on Saratoga Street in East Boston, a street overrun with dishes, said, “Give me a break. They can hide the dishes in wealthy neighborhoods, but not here?”


Messrs. Brady and Kerry don’t avoid having dishes, they are prohibited from having dishes: big difference.


Yes, Tom, you can have a throwback uniform in a historic district, but not a satellite dish


The issue is freedom to use one’s property as one chooses – even if one is a tenant, not a landlord.


But Steve Hill, spokesman for the Satellite Trade Association, insists it isn’t about class. “A lot of communities, especially immigrant communities, want to get television from their own country and you need multiple dishes to do that.”  


We get our talking points beamed straight into our heads 


Imagine the First Amendment hullaballoo if landlord were denying immigrant access to their home-country programming. 


“One might have to face in one direction, another dish in another direction to pull in the signal,’’ he said.   


“We do want to work with the Boston City Council to be a good community partner.”


Hill could not speak to the hefty fees often charged to remove dishes, which means renters often move out and leave them behind.


Now, finally, we come to the problem: the dish is unwieldy and probably not reusable, so renters abandon them, and a post-abandonment dish (without a receiving box and a subscription) is an asset of negative value. 


Then, a new tenant orders satellite service and the installer puts up another dish, leaving the old, inoperable one behind — the property of the now-absent customer, and not the company’s problem.


The phenomenon is global – even a few minutes’ Googling turned up dish-room patches all over the world:




Cairo, Egypt


Tehran, Iran  – where we want people to have access to global information


Damascus, Syria


Not such a Lonely Planet after all J


“Between the company, the customer and the landlord, we should be able to figure out how to take them down when they are no longer in use,’ ” said Arroyo, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “They are pretty awful.’’


Obviously, satellite dishes are neither dying off nor being politically eradicated – they’re mushrooming.  Instead of fulminating against their spread, therefore, consider these three potential solutions:


1. Pay landlords to remove abandoned dishes.  If the city paid landlords (say) $100 each time they turned in an abandoned dish, it would be worth the landlords’ while t have them removed.  This is an important alternative, as it shows that the council’s objection can be converted from one of government’s products – laws against doing something – into another government product – incentives for doing something.


Once a problem can be expressed in economic terms, then it can be reframed as a dispute not about rights but about money.  If I were Mr. Hill of the satellite dish association, I’d say to the City Council, “If you don’t like them so much, why don’t you offer to buy used ones?”


“Now, if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
   We can begin to feed.”

“But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
   Turning a little blue.
“After such kindness, that would be
   A dismal thing to do!”
“The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
   “Do you admire the view?”


2. Allow an abandoned-dish reclamation bounty.  Somehow I expect that a used satellite dish probably has fairly good value – if it’s properly removed and neither damaged nor vandalized in the process.  So, if the city council doesn’t like the first choice, it could create an abandoned-dish-recovery law, providing that dish scavengers – like recyclable can and bottle scavengers – could have the ownership of any abandoned dish they properly remove from a building.  (To avoid thievery, dish resellers would be obligated to return and reinstall any dish improperly taken, as demonstrated by a resident showing ownership and occupancy, and hence they would need to be licensed


Here again, once a problem is converted from a mandate into an incentive, business opportunities open up.  I have no idea where the market would be made, but if warehouse distributors can be filled to the rafters with second-hand telephone and computer systems, why not satellite dishes?


“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
   “I deeply sympathise.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
   Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
   Before his streaming eyes.


Once a problem is turned into an asset-based business opportunity,


3. Beautify dishes in place.  No one argues that dishes are a health hazard, nor a safety hazard; people just don’t like looking at them.  All right, then find ways to camouflage or beautify them in situ, as shown by these examples found from around the world:


Berlin, Germany




What dish? I don’t see any dish!


The observant herd is willing to be civic, provided others are as well.  Reverse the broken-windows effect: sponsor a contest, encourage manufacturers, get schoolchildren involved:



“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
   “You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?”
   But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
   They’d eaten every one.