Passing the Buck at Salvo House Hazards

Everyone agrees that serious maintenance and safety issues persist at the Walter Salvo House. Finding someone to take responsibility for them is another matter.

Northampton Housing Authority Executive Director Jonathan Hite met with Ward 3 City Councilor-Elect Angela Plassmann and residents of the public housing complex at Plassmann’s office hours at Salvo House on Dec. 12. At Large City Councilor-Elect Jesse Adams was also in attendance.

One tenant living on the third floor said that he had to put sheets over the windows because he had no heat, and that it took the maintenance staff seven weeks to replace his lightbulb. He also said the first floor stairwell had been stained with someone’s diarrhea for several days. Another tenant, speaking before Hite’s arrival, lamented the absence of a “town hall” forum to bring problems to Hite’s attention, since his office had been unresponsive to letters and his email address was not available to the public. This tenant was concerned that at least one resident had an unauthorized satellite dish on their terrace (he produced a photo), while the Housing Authority had not acted on longstanding requests to bring DirecTV to the building as a whole, which could cut residents’ cable bills in half.

Overall, it appears that tenants perceive that the building rules are applied in an arbitrary or preferential way, and not clearly communicated in advance. Plassmann offered to work with the residents to develop a written record of complaints and maintenance requests.

Hite spent about two hours Dec. 12 responding to these questions and explaining the NHA’s maintenance plan. Salvo House is allotted 29 hours of janitorial maintenance per week, which includes both cleaning the common areas and fixing up vacant apartments. In the past 10 months, he said, they fell behind in the common areas because there was a higher-than-average number of vacancies: 75 out of 192 units, rather than the average 60-70. The staff’s top priority is compliance with state codes, and filling vacancies comes second, since empty apartments can breed crime and represent lost revenue. The NHA is not city-funded; it’s supported entirely by federal and state funding, plus rent. Hite said there was no chance that the maintenance hours at Salvo could be increased.

In last week’s investigation, I observed large brown water stains in the third floor hallway that one tenant attributed to a sewage overflow. Hite said this was actually water damage from a blocked drainpipe on the roof 2-3 years ago; he didn’t know when they would get to paint it. Whatever the source, the failure to purge this ancient eyesore isn’t adequately explained by the extra 10-15 vacancies that arose only in the past 10 months. Can a building be in compliance with state health codes when blood and fecal matter remain in common areas for days? More investigation is needed.

Hite was asked to speak to tenants’ complaints about maintenance surcharges. If the Housing Authority is short on funds, why discourage tenants from making improvements to their own apartments? Hite responded that tenants would not be charged so long as they asked permission and used NHA-authorized materials. For instance, he said, the family who put down their own floor covering used cheap materials that were hard to remove when they moved out.

Hite claimed that the staff responds to requests within 24 hours. However, the perception among the tenants, as heard by this reporter, is that it takes an unreasonable amount of time to obtain even basic items like lightbulbs and drain stoppers from NHA staff. It’s certainly reasonable for NHA to pre-approve changes that might affect the property value, but they’ll have to work harder to convince tenants that waiting isn’t futile. Resolving the DirecTV issue might earn them some trust.

A number of tenants have alleged that fees for service calls are applied in an unpredictable and uneven manner, with some tenants receiving the same service for free while others are billed. There was some disagreement on this point during the meeting with Hite, who said tenants are charged for service calls when the damage is their fault. He implied that this was often the case, because the elderly and disabled residents cause chronic maintenance problems such as leaving the water running until the tub or sink overflows. Regulations prevent NHA from discriminating against a tenant for inability to live independently.

I pointed out that tenants seem confused about the policy, and asked whether there was a written schedule of fees for various items. Hite replied that of course the tenants are confused, since they probably haven’t read their leases in five years. He said the surcharge provisions were in the addendum to the eight-page document. It wasn’t clear whether he was referring to an actual itemized list of charges, or simply a general clause permitting tenants to be charged for time and materials. Plassmann has requested a copy of the lease, which Northampton Media will review.

Keeping a building like Salvo House in good condition is a tough job, but Hite’s attitude toward his tenants seems unrealistic. Having chosen to serve a special-needs population, the Housing Authority should budget for the fact that these tenants may require extra help taking care of their homes. In most cases, they’re not willfully damaging their living space, and shouldn’t be treated like problem children. Making them pay extra for every little service call is like charging a hospital patient for a bedpan.

Hite and his staff should also make an effort to communicate on the tenants’ level. Important policies should be clearly posted on the bulletin board, not buried in lease boilerplate. This would create goodwill that would make his job easier in the long run. NHA can’t have it both ways: Tenants who are too mentally challenged to turn off their faucets shouldn’t be expected to search legal documents for the answers to their questions.

Last week, we reported tenants’ allegations that Don Moran, the volunteer who ran the dining hall, was sexually harassing and threatening other residents. I spoke Dec. 10 with John Lutz, the associate director of Highland Valley Elder Services, which runs the dining program. Lutz did not deny the substance of the tenants’ complaints, stretching back several years. He called Moran “not perfect” but still a “valued member of that operation.” He said Highland Valley was engaged in ongoing dialogue with the Salvo House tenants to reach a satisfactory compromise. “We’ve tried to get him to change his behavior instead of doing away with him—nobody’s perfect,” Lutz said. He said he hadn’t heard any new complaints since last spring when Moran’s role was altered to remove him from some client contact. Citing confidentiality, he declined to discuss further details.

According to Lutz, Highland Valley needs to keep Moran on board because no other volunteers have stepped up. However, tenants’ association president Danny Kahle said at the Dec. 12 meeting that several residents have quit their dining hall duties because they’re afraid to work with Moran, and would return if he were removed.

Highland Valley’s central kitchen, located at Salvo House, prepares a thousand meals per day for the Meals on Wheels program serving 24 towns in Western Massachusetts. “We’re not a catering service,” Lutz replied to my question about Salvo residents’ request for greater ethnic diversity in the menu. He said it would not be cost-effective to provide one set of meals for Salvo House, which has a large population of color, and another for the predominantly white towns that Meals on Wheels serves.

At the Dec. 12 meeting, Hite said the harassment allegations were a serious matter that he would investigate. He indicated that this was the first time he’d heard of the problem with Moran. Assuming this is true, it further demonstrates the need for NHA to improve its channels of communication with the tenants, since this issue has gone on for years.

While NHA has no direct authority over Highland Valley’s hiring decisions, they are responsible, as Highland Valley’s landlord, for keeping the elder-services agency from endangering other Salvo tenants. Right now, it seems that Highland Valley is getting most of the benefit from its location at Salvo House, while the tenants themselves get little.

Serving the Salvo House population presents special challenges, but that doesn’t make them less worthy of care. It’s time for the providers of these taxpayer-funded services to start seeing their elderly and disabled tenants as clients and human beings, not as obstacles.

Disclosure: Jendi Reiter is the wife of Adam Cohen, who publishes commentary at  North Street Neighborhood Association and at No Porn Northampton. Cohen has been a financial contributor to Northampton Media.

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