Friday, July 19, 2024

Some residents have complained to the Cambridge Housing Authority about conditions at Newtowne Court and Washington Elms. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A group of tenants at two large public housing developments says the Cambridge Housing Authority has lagged in responding to residents’ complaints of mice, cockroaches and mold, taken months to replace broken appliances and handled requests for repairs improperly. About a dozen Newtowne Court and Washington Elms tenants and supporters showed up at the June 12 meeting of the CHA board of commissioners in a rare outburst of public comment.

The tenants delivered a petition with 136 signatures, mostly by people who live in the two developments in The Port. It demanded “an end to the mold, mice and cockroach infestation in CHA housing”; a plan of correction within 24 hours of a complaint; and a moratorium on evictions of “any resident with outstanding maintenance/quality of living requests that have not been serviced.” The petition also demanded that the authority end “retaliation against residents who bring up complaints” and stop making “arbitrary threats of eviction, especially for minor issues such as missing paperwork.” And it should “respect residents’ privacy” by showing up on time for maintenance appointments and must give 24-hour notice “for entering an apartment,” the petition said.

After tenants spoke, board chair Elaine DeRosa said: “We’re hearing your concerns and we will respond. You have raised some serious issues that we have heard. If people have been threatened, I want to find out who threatened them.”

The tenant group and CHA executive director Michael Johnston don’t agree about involving the commissioners in what comes next, though. Johnston said he has scheduled two meetings with residents from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. July 9 and 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. July 10, where he, senior leaders and staff at the developments will listen to tenants and address individual complaints. The residents want the board of commissioners to come as well.

There have been complaints of mice, cockroaches and mold at Newtowne Court and Washington Elms housing. (Photo: Marc Levy)

“There have to be policies in place that have to be driven by people at the top,” said Tamanna Syed, a Newtowne Court resident who helped organize the petition drive. “People on the board may not understand the depth of the issue.”

Johnston said the commissioners won’t attend “because the executive director is tasked with the day-to-day operations of the authority and the issues that have been raised fall into this category. Residents that signed the petition have concerns that need to be vetted and will be addressed as needed.” Johnston said. He added that Syed was given “contact information” to pass along to residents with “urgent issues” so they could get their complaints addressed before the meetings.

Johnston said residents in the 78 households who signed the petition will be invited but all residents can attend. The two developments have a total of 443 units. He said he may call another meeting toward the end of July and notify a broader group. “Bottom line, I look forward to having a productive conversation and to hopefully come to a satisfactory resolution for all our residents at Newtowne Court/Washington Elms,” he said.

The authority only recently allowed public comment at its meetings and adopted strict time limits as well as restricting comments to items on the agenda. Conditions at the two family developments in The Port were not on the agenda. CHA staff running the meeting tried to keep the tenants from speaking – board member Susan Connelly told them: “There is a space for public comment and right now you are being rude.” But they continued to talk and eventually board chair DeRosa said they should be allowed to testify so that the board could continue with its agenda.

Participation by PSL

Most of the board members listened in silence but commissioner Connelly objected sharply to speakers who weren’t residents of the two developments. When one man began speaking, Connelly cut him off, saying: “You don’t live in that community, please sit down and let the next person speak.”

Some of those who don’t live in the developments but are supporting the residents’ efforts belong to the Party of Socialism and Liberation, the group that led demonstrations against police and city officials after a police officer fatally shot Bangladeshi immigrant Arif Sayad Faisal, 20, on Jan. 4, 2023. Faisal had been holding a large knife while in the grip of a mental health crisis.

“The residents of Washington Elms and Newtowne Court are our neighbors,” said a PSL organizer, Ximena Hasbach. “We are working alongside them. We’re community members who heard about the issues. Working class people deserve dignified housing everywhere.”

During the Faisal protests, PSL worked with the Bangladesh Association of New England.

Syed, the Newtowne Court tenant who helped organize the campaign to improve conditions and response to tenants at the developments, said: “The people who spoke at the meeting were tenants. Yes, there were some supporters, but this is tenant-led.”

Issues about environment

Syed said at the meeting that the development “used to feel like a home” but now left her feeling “uneasy and uncomfortable.” In an interview later, Syed said tenants had been coping with rodents, cockroaches and mold “for several years” and the problems “have gone unattended.”

She said tenants had complained to CHA staff about the mold and infestation and were promised that employees “will address these issues,” but nothing was done. “My family called,” she said. “It’s been months.”

Most important, she said, is an eviction moratorium for tenants who have complained about conditions, though she could not point to evidence that CHA served the notices in retaliation. Syed said the actions came for “minor issues” such as missing paperwork for rent redeterminations.

“In the last five years it has gotten worse,” she said. Tenants will get a letter saying: “‘You have XYZ missing paperwork. You have five days [to produce it] or you will be evicted.’”

Syed said CHA employees sometimes lost or mishandled paperwork that was submitted, leading to the letters.

Advocate and a signer

The authority recruited another tenant at Newtowne Court to counter the protesters’ picture; Johnston suggested that Cambridge Day call her. That person, who said she wanted only her first name, Louise, to be published, said she had not experienced problems getting managers to address her complaints.

She said she had told other tenants who had mice or cockroaches: “All you got to do is go to your manager and they’ll put you on the infestation list.”

Still, Louise was one of the tenants who signed the petition, she acknowledged. “I agree if you’re having a problem it should be fixed,” she said. She added that she wasn’t sure whether the complaining tenants had contacted the managers.

Tenant organizations

Public housing tenants as well as people with rent vouchers have an organization to represent them: the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants. ACT almost ended its existence two years ago because of internal disputes but recovered, partly with the help of the authority. Cambridge Day contacted ACT but did not get a response; the organization does not talk to the press without going through an approval process.

Individual developments also have elected tenant councils, but the status of the council at Washington Elms and Newtowne Court isn’t clear. Johnston said CHA enlisted the nearby Margaret Fuller House, a longtime community center, to hold regular meetings with tenants without staff from the authority, partly in hope of organizing a tenant council there.

“We brought them into [the two developments] to help build up a community” and counteract residents’ fear of complaining to authority staff, Johnston said of the Margaret Fuller House. CHA also hoped to form a new tenant council at Washington Elms and Newtowne Court, he said.

Though Johnston said the meetings at Margaret Fuller didn’t include CHA employees, he provided a copy of a report on the May meeting that referred to local managers who “jumped in” with explanations when residents complained that they were fined for leaving “clutter in hallways.” The report began on a positive note, saying: “Tenants have noticed a lot of positive customer service changes at the Pisani Center. In addition to reinstating walk-in hours, residents also commented on how helpful management staff are when they have questions or need assistance.”

Asked about having staff at the May meeting, Johnston said: “They are occasionally invited, but that is not the norm.”

Older and newer housing stock

The complaints about conditions at Newtowne Court and Washington Elms come as CHA is about to build 278 new public housing apartments at Jefferson Park Federal on Rindge Avenue. The housing authority demolished the former Jefferson Park, which had 175 units.

Tenants at other affordable housing sites have said their buildings are deteriorating while owners construct and plan new housing. A tenant leader at Inman Square Apartments persuaded city councillors to castigate affordable housing developer Homeowners Rehab, saying HRI was neglecting the building. HRI executive director Sara Barcan has said the building needs a “major renovation” but “this will take time” because of high costs and competition for government aid. HRI is building new affordable projects at several locations in Cambridge.

CHA modernized Washington Elms and Newtowne Court in 2017.