(This is the first in a series of articles on the Northampton Housing Authority)
Peter Cushing stands outside the community center at Forsander Apartments
It started Thursday evening with yelling in the parking lot. Pete Cushings vision isnt that great since an auto accident damaged his eyes six years ago, but his hearing is okay. Petes the president of the tenants group at the Forsander Apartments in Florence. He worked many years in Northampton as a manager of a local supermarket before retirement.
Pete looks out the window and sees two guys, drunk as any two skunks can be, wheeling a shopping cart up thedriveway, looking for their friend Linda.
I cant find you, where the (deleted) are you? yells one guy. He doesnt find Linda, goes into an entryway across the way and bangs on a door. A Spanish-speaking woman comes to the door, He comes back out yelling No habla (deleted) English? He keeps yelling, broadcasting various expletives and threats to the open air as he walks. They leave the shopping cart by the womans door.
Linda, where the (deleted) are you? The sound dies away and a few minutes later Cushing sees one of them sitting on a bench with his arms out, as if he was waiting for the handcuffs to be put on. Cushing calls the police as he has done many times over the five years he has lived in Forsander.
A few minutes later the guy is walking down the hill to B building again yelling for Linda. The tenants are used to it. Linda is affable and likes street people, who often come looking for her. A number of calls are made to the police department. The police report indicates that on 9:51 pm two policemen arrived. Pete saw them escort the two men up the hill to get their shopping cart, then back down the hill to B building.
Linda, who lives on the second floor of B building, used to be head of the Florence Heights Tenants Association many years ago where she was a king-sized pain in the ass to George OBrien, the autocratic old Irishman who ran the Northampton Housing Authority in the 1970s and 80s. It was a wild awful place in l986, full of boarded-up apartments. I worked up there finding people jobs. I remember the night a resident was shot like a dog back near the dumpsters.
One day I was in her apartment . Dig this, Kirby she said, Get a load of this willya?
She popped the screws off a light switch and pulled off the faceplate, and a whole platoon of cockroaches spilled out. She laughed a mad laugh. She was rude, loud, profane, and in her own way a courageous endearing person who had the courage to stand up to OBrien when no one else would. Since then she has run for mayor a couple of times. When her kids grew up and she was no longer eligible for family housing, she was transferred to an elderly unit to which she was presumably eligible because of some kind of handicap.
Elaine Fortier, who we will meet shortly, said that OBriens successor, Jonathan Hite, decided that he would put her in Forsander in Florence because he was damned if he would put her in McDonald House downtown and have her in his office every day. So now she lives on the apartment over Elaine Fortier, dumping bleach water on Fortiers meticulously prepared garden. She tells Fortier she is writing funding proposals for Hite, who supposedly depends on her skills as a fundraiser.
The oldest units are the Cahill units built during the administration of Gov. John Volpe
Its now 11:30 pm and Elaine Fortier hears something outside her apartment. The Cahill Apartments on Fruit Street and Forsander units were built in the late 1960s, and very little has been done to update them over the years. Between l993 and 2002, NHA spent only $115,000 out of their modernization and capital Improvement money on the complex or $1,600 a unit. This compares unfavorably with the money they spent on Hampshire Heights ($68,087 per unit ) and Salvo House ($3,006 per unit). The Forsander complex at the corner of North Maple and High Streets looks okay from the street, but the buildings are tired. They have leaky old windows, old plumbing and creaky subfloors. They lack the soundproofing of the high-rise Salvo House on Conz Street. You can hear a pin drop in the corridor outside, you can hear your upstairs neighbor cough and stomp around. Some of the lonely older people sit there and spend their nights listening to the building sounds.
The largest of the elderly complexes is the Conz Street housing
The sounds out in the corridor that night came from a Level Three sex offender making himself an improvised bed under the stairs. The 47 year-year old man was highlighted in the Daily Hamsphire Gazette the next day in a small notice that told its readers that he had been convicted in 1989 of assault with the intent to commit rape in Springfield, was living at the VA Medical Center, and was classified as an offender with a high risk of reoffending.
That night, though, he was at Forsander, stinking of booze. He wanted to sleep in the corridor, and Fortier told him that was not acceptable behavior..
Elaine Fortier can be a stern bulldog when it is required. As a caseworker with retarded people, she worked with a whole variety of people on limit-setting issues over the years. She is in her 6os, a forthright humorous woman with a huge laugh. Many of her clients were retarded people who came out of the Belchertown State School. She could live frugally on her salary, but when she retired last year, the only place she could afford was this housing authority in Florence. The beautiful garden you see when you come in the place is hers, which NHA helps pay for.
The newest project is Tobin Manor on Maple Street in Florence, built in the 1980s.
So when the noise had quieted, she warmed up her computer and wrote John Hite one of her letters. She has written quite a few in the last couple of years, and this one she did in boldface. She asked that deadbolts be installed on the outside doors and underlined the following: Personal Safety has become a serious issue in this building.
Whats going on at the state level?
|The Northampton Housing Authority in brief:
Budget: about $2.2 million
Executive Director: Jon Hite; salary: $70,500
Governed by a five-member board of trustees, four are appointed by the Mayor, one by the State
Current Mayoral appointees: Lynne Blaisdell; Atty. Maureen Carney; Atty. Joseph DeFazio
State appointee: John A. Andrulis
The trustee position that is mandated to represent tenants is currently vacant.
NHA owns and operates 614 units of low-income housing in Northampton and Florence, and administers Section 8 subsidies for another 353 units. About 83 percent of the NHA income comes from rents. Average rent is $217, additional subsidies and other income brings their revenue per unit to about $300 per unit.
Name Built units
Hampshire Heights (1950), 80 units
Florence Heights (1952), 50 units
Millbank II (1989), 4 units
Scattered sites (705 program), 8 units
McDonald House (1966), 60 units
Cahill (1968), 64 units
Forsander (1968), 72 units
Salvo House (1975), 192 units
Tobin Manor (1986), 49 units
96 Bridge Street (1985), 7 units
Jessies House, 20 units
Housing Authorities in Massachusetts are supposedly supervised by the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD), located in the Saltonstall Office Building on Cambridge Street in downtown Boston.
The reality is that while most of their funding for major projects comes from the DHCD, oversight usually comes from the State Auditor, who frequently wades into hiring, accounting and competency issues at Housing Authorities around the state. The Saltonstall building had a certain notoriety among reporters and social service types, and was know as the SOB and used to be the home for 2,000 who worked, after a fashion, for the state. In the old days the 22-story SOB lorded it over Cambridge Street, set back from the street and reached by a broad flight of steps frequently marked by holes and Keep-Off orange barrels and sawhorses.
The SOB has now been reborn as 100 Cambridge St. and has been partially privatized. The upper part with the better views of the Charles River and the harbor is private. Wrapping around three sides of the upper building are 75 condominiums, looking west are private offices, now about half rented. The entryway on Charles is now at street level. Inside the revolving doors is a lot of very-expensive-looking black marble, no signs to speak of, and enough staff confusion to make me think that we were the first people to ever visit the building. To get to the state offices in the lower floors of the building you have to check in with security, who will demand identification and print you a little badge.
Upstairs there was no marble, Monel or Corian. The state office space is dominated by white drywall, locked doors, no people, and only a few Princess-type phones hanging on the wall to give you access to unseen authorities who will let you in, or not let you in. A reception desk sits behind a glass wall, its desk is empty. When we finally got in through the locked doors, we talked to the Department of Housing and Community Developments press person in a windowless conference room about the departments role in supervising local housing authorities like the Northampton Housing Authority (NHA).
Beth Bresnahan has worked here four years, and every transfer puts her in a smaller office. The department keeps losing staff, is down from 210 people to about 140. She talks somewhat wistfully of moving on, perhaps to the private sector. She had promised to bring along the last two inspection reports on Northamptons state-owned properties administered by the Northampton Housing Authority. The bad news she had for us when we sat down was that she just had one report for us, and it was dated April 6,.1999. Five years ago. The department had done spot inspections of the Northampton properties last September, but the report has still not been finalized and mailed to the NHA for its review. Thats about eight months to print and prepare a modest-sized report that might run 40 or 50 pages of print-outs from the notes of the inspector. This might say a lot about what the state is doing to supervise and fund local housing authorities coping with aging buildings, unfunded mandates, and outbreaks of crime. There is now only one housing inspector working for the department. There are 251 housing authorities in Massachusetts and a caseload of some 50,000 units.
The 1999 report indicates that the inspector looked at 48 NHA units. Out of these, 77 percent of the units failed to pass inspection; 112 out of 122 defects cited were maintenance related. In other words, 91 percent of the defects were not due to tenant sloppiness or carelessness. Breaking them down by complex, Hampshire Heights apartments were in the worst shape by far. Six out of the seven apartments inspected had items classified as emergency items requiring a fix within 24 hours. Apartment 1A was deemed not fit for human habitation. Since then the Authority has replaced the roofs and is completing a bathroom and kitchen renovation. Apartments in the newer complexes, Salvo House and Tobin Manor were in relatively good shape; there were more defects and problems with Forsander and Cahill. All the Cahill apartments inspected had problems with the venting system for the bathrooms, and to date, to my knowledge, the venting system has not been overhauled, just cleaned.
The Authority has a problem with preventative and regular maintenance.
Just who is in charge anyway?
My job as a home health aide used to carry me into Northampton Housing Authority buildings and one day I saw a sign posted on the Salvo House bulletin board. I think the author of this was the late Joe Brady, who was head of the Tenants Association.
KINDLY DO NOT CALL YOUR TENANT UNION PRESIDENT
IF THERE IS A FIGHT OR DISTURBANCE IN THE HALLWAY.
Joe didnt want to break up fights, he probably felt it wasnt in the job description. The right to quiet enjoyment is built into the State Sanitary Code, and if NHA tenants ever got a crusading Philadelphia-type lawyer, its board might be in trouble.
Some time in the last year ,the elderly in NHAs elderly project became a numerical minority in buildings designed and built for them specifically. The word is getting around that Northamptons elderly complexes are unsafe places to live. State and federal laws require that if NHA has a vacant apartment, it has to rent to younger people who are disabled and homeless and otherwise eligible for public housing. The disabilities may include all things that make people unemployable, including mental illness, alcohol or drug addiction. Because it has an active psychiatric and substance abuse program at the VA, and its historic connection to the Northampton State Hospital, Northampton has a substantial population of mentally disabled people. A system built on segregating the young and the old is now fully integrated, but the authoritys elderly complexes are now plagued by all the ills that affect their family housing, including fights, alcohol abuse and drug activities..
Next in the Series: A Poster Child of the System