The senior housing at 2 Mount Auburn has become unbearably cold, residents are telling city officials. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

Housing at 2 Mount Auburn has become unbearably cold, residents are telling city officials. (Photo: City of Cambridge)

To get through a winter of sustained bitter cold, residents of the 2 Mount Auburn senior apartment building have been using their ovens as emergency heat, bundling up indoors as though they were going outdoors and complaining to management – without response, according to complaints heard at Monday’s meeting of the City Council.

The council, after hearing the testimony of nearly 20 speakers, voted unanimously for the city manager to work with management at the building to get residents through the rest of the winter safely and warmly, and it referred the matter to its own Housing Committee.

“It’s quite troubling to see elderly residents coming down in the middle of the winter, and for the need for them to come down … I want to applaud the residents for their advocacy, for coming out in big numbers on a cold and snowy night. Their voices have been heard here,” Mayor David Maher said. “There is a definite need for both long- and short-term solutions. The frustrating thing for us is that we don’t have the quick answers for them.”

“But I do want to make sure we are in every way assisting them in what is a basic need,” Maher said, thanking vice mayor Dennis Benzan for crafting the policy order.

HRI and Winn

The 94-unit building for seniors and the disabled went up in 1974, and Harvard owned it until selling it in March to Homeowner’s Rehab Inc., a nonprofit rehab agency based on Franklin Street. But day-to-day operation of some HRI properties falls to the property management arm of Winn, a company based on Memorial Drive.

Councillors Marc McGovern and E. Denise Simmons said they’d spoken with HRI’s executive director, Peter Daly, in weeks past and were assured the building would get cold-weather attention, including general promises “that it was being taken care of” according to Simmons and a specific promise to cover the building’s windows with heat-retaining plastic, according to McGovern. When residents call with complaints, they might be making the mistake of calling one company and think they’re talking to the other, Simmons said – or it may be that HRI erred in hiring Winn, which “I think has bitten off more than they can chew.”

It would be a topic of a policy order at the next council business meeting, Simmons said.

“They just can’t do it all,” she said, echoing complaints about Winn heard during public comment, “and that’s why you have seen some of this lag time in getting back to people … there’s clearly a separate problem around Winn in particular. They have picked up more properties than they can successfully manage.”

Improvements

Indeed, complaints about ill-fitting windows were the most common theme among the speakers, but the failure of property managers to respond to complaints about the cold, including broken boilers, unprotected windows and frozen pipes, was a close runner-up. despite reassurances of responses extended through the tenants association. “Management’s method of addressing this is that they’ve called a meeting of the residents to explain how to use the emergency call service. I went in there and told them that they ought to call a meeting of the call service to explain to them how to respond to emergency calls,” quipped resident Angela Romano.

An August letter explaining the transfer of ownership at 2 Mount Auburn signed by officials from Harvard, HRI and the tenants association promised not just to keep affordable senior services in place, but that there would be “timely improvements to building systems such as the elevators, the boilers and many other elements identified as priorities. These improvements will begin very soon after the transfer of the property; in fact, new boilers will be in place for the upcoming winter and work on the elevators will begin this fall.”

Residents such as Bruce La Motte said Harvard had maintained the building poorly during its ownership, and the schedule for repairs when ownership changed also didn’t work out, with nothing done in time for a winter that has been remarkable for its extreme cold. Carlone doubted any work could be done until late spring.

Renovation

“Like many of the other councillors, I’ve been to this building, and I must say I was a little shocked at the inside. This building was built during a period when gasoline and oil was very cheap and therefore I’m certain very little insulation is in the walls,” said councillor Dennis Carlone, a Harvard-educated planner, architect and urban design consultant. With the second floor taking in cold from an underground parking garage, “it’s about the worst approach you can do to keep heat in a building, period. What bothers me is that the prior owner knew exactly what was there and I’m sure these issues aren’t new – and that’s part of the reason why they sold it.

The building, which has an assessed valued of nearly $14 million, will be undergoing significant renovations that councillor Dennis Carlone, a Harvard-educated planner, architect and urban design consultant, expected would be “a complete shell reconstruction.” HRI got the deed for state considerations of $9.3 million.

“The new owner didn’t pay top value for this because they’re well aware of these problems and negotiated a price that assumed there would be a major renovation. They had to, or they wouldn’t take the building on,” Carlone said.

The city was likely to see the same heating and renovation needs from any building built around the same time, he said.

The most obvious solution was to bring in space heaters, which some residents said they tried to avoid because they saw heaters as fire risks in a small, cluttered apartments occupied by tenants who might sleep heavily because they are medicated. One tenant said she was already sleeping with two electric blankets as well as having the oven on to create heat, suggesting electricity bills would surge at the building until the weather got warm.

Residents also wanted HRI to open the books on the building’s expenses, La Motte said, and several asked for a meeting with the city manager to include any tenant, not just the tenant’s association. Councillors made that change before voting.