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OPINION: Arlington Housing Authority isn’t powerless

UPDATED: Sheri A. Baron, a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member, wrote this opinion piece responding to a January column by Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) Commissioner Brian Connor. 

AHA officials at the site of the future Life and Skills Building, then under construction.AHA officials at the site of the future Life and Skills Center, then under construction.

To clarify the authority's duties and responsibilities, Connor, the governor’s appointee to the authority, claimed that there is a “gross misunderstanding” of what they can and cannot do. He said the AHA is essentially powerless over the day-to-day lives of the more than 1,100 adults and nearly 400 children who live in five AHA properties.

He also lamented about the number of people attending the monthly board meetings, blaming the heightened interest and citizen participation for longer, confrontational meetings. 

Connor feels that the authority’s “system” works very well, with few complaints. He says there are two rodent infestations and notes the director’s negligence in returning calls.

Admittedly, I had little knowledge about the AHA, despite having lived in Arlington for nearly 43 years. In watching and reading about the candidates during last spring’s town election, I became interested in the candidate running against the incumbent, Joseph Daly. Jo Anne Preston spoke to the needs of the residents and how much potential there was to do so much more to help them. I voted for her.

I do not agree with Connor’s statement, 'As a heavily regulated state agency, there is little that can be changed locally.'”  

Since then, I’ve researched state-mandated authority rules and regulations. I’ve read reports  and recommendations conducted by outside, neutral parties who studied the AHA. I’ve spoken to directors of local housing authorities. I began “attending” monthly AHA meetings last June. My understanding of the responsibilities and obligations of this board, and the way in which the AHA can and should impact the lives of all of the residents, differs significantly from Connor's.

It is true that the AHA is  a “heavily regulated state agency”. Many people are unaware that our town manager and elected and appointed officials have no authority over the AHA, except for local building codes and zoning regulations. The town manager does not review the director’s performance. The AHA does not report at yearly town meetings. The only influence town residents have is the right to vote board members in and out of office. 

But the AHA is not  powerless. I do not agree with Connor’s statement, “As a heavily regulated state agency, there is little that can be changed locally.”  

Yes, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) sets all policies, mandates and regulations with which all state housing authorities must comply. Nevertheless, the director and board have other serious responsibilities and duties that have been largely ignored.

The DHCD mandates that procedures and rights granted to the tenants are followed and implemented. It is up to the director to do this, and it is the responsibility off the four elected and one appointed board member to instruct him to do his job or to replace him. 

Naturally, all mandates and regulations are effective only if properly implemented by local housing authorities. To the extent they do or do not implement them makes all the difference in the lives of the tenants.

In my view, it would be more accurate to describe the AHA as a state/federal agency that should have close working relationship to the town, since all of the residents who live the are residents of Arlington.

More residents at meetings

Through my research, I learned that, for decades, AHA meetings lasted less than 30 minutes and were attended by fewer than six people. With meeting attendance as high as 48 people during the past nine months, the AHA is seeing a sharp rise in interest in its performance. (Now that ACMi is filming the meetings, anyone can watch them, and I urge you to do so.)

Connor complains that this makes it difficult to get their work done. Now, in addition to tenants, there are concerned Arlington residents attending, who have “no connection” to the AHA.

We need to remember one fact. The  residents of the AHA's properties are our neighbors. They represent the most diverse population in Arlington. Their children go to school here; they shop and vote 

Every single one of them has the same human rights as every person who lives, works, and passes through Arlington.

Why are more people are coming to AHA meetings?

From what I’ve seen, the residents who live in the AHA properties have critical issues to be resolved. They attend meetings because they have been unsuccessful using any other means of communicating their concerns. I will admit that it has become uncivil at times, with residents behaving badly. But I understand why they are often nearly out of control in their despair.

Connor sees meetings as “becoming less productive” and “divisive”. I think the opposite is true. In his article, Connor admits that the AHA “serves as a sounding board for our tenants and helps resolve issues”. If they are the “sounding board,” their sounds are not being addressed.  

What is true is that most often, the residents’ calls, texts and emails are ignored by the long-term board members. They try to communicate with the executive director, only to regularly find his mailbox full for days at a time. He never answers his phone and rarely responds to emails.  

If residents do reach a human at the office, they are often told that the problem will be addressed, only to wait for weeks and find that nothing is done. So, they try calling a number again that has no human voice at the end. Or they finally, after weeks or in some cases, months, reach someone who tells them to buy a can of Raid.

 Of course, they come to meetings. 

Some tenants’ concerns are finally being addressed at meetings. The new members are listening and providing answers. They are considering changes and necessary improvements. And the public is watching. 

The director and board are beginning to respond to serious issues, such as serious rodent infestations and the complete absence of a functioning communication system. But meetings should not be the place that they have to go to complain or get vital, current information.

Why hasn’t the AHA ever had an effective, user-friendly communication system? This needs to be implemented immediately. The authority needs to have a professionally managed, documented intake and response procedure, a well-designed, user-friendly website with informative content and useful, current resource information and a frequently updated residents' handbook. (The current one was last updated in 2007.) I’m not sure how many low-income residents in the AHA properties know that they are eligible for Covid vaccinations. Why isn’t this on the website NOW?

Rodent infestation causes in selective units

Connor writes about bedbugs, cockroaches and mice in some of the properties. This issue has come up at nearly every meeting. It has caused some of the worst, most depressing scenes since I’ve been watching. The long-term members seem apathetic; they downplay the seriousness, offer limp solutions and offend the residents publicly.

Connor explains the causes of the rodent infestation in his article. “These rodents continue to show up in selective units and developments.” He continues, “we struggle with the habits of a small percentage of our tenants.”

His explanation makes me uncomfortable. Maybe it’s his choice of wording. Does he  mean that some residents cook with certain spices and herbs that attract rodents? Or do rodents prefer certain geographic parts of Arlington more than others?”

Connor advocates being respectful and truthful, yet his accusations that some “selective percentage” of tenants’ “habits” cause the pest infestation problems do not meet this standard. I’d like a further explanation of these statements. 

Wouldn’t it be more honest for the director/board to inform the reading public and the residents that it is a widely known fact that pest infestation has greatly increased due to global warming and cannot be blamed on “the habits of a small percentage of our tenants.” There are reports of rodent infestations from East Arlington to Arlington Heights. 

According to  Christine Bongiorno, town director of public health, pest infestation has increased all over Arlington. A proactive, integrated pest-management program should address these issues before a resident becomes so desperate that she has no other recourse but to come to a board meeting and plead for help.

Tenants’ rights

There are other avenues in which tenants should be able to communicate with the director and the board. The DHCD encourages tenants to form tenant local tenant associations. It is the responsibility of the executive director and the board to encourage the formation of tenant associations and to assist in any way possible to ensure that it happens. In fact, under state law 760CMR 6.09, tenants not only have the right to form associations, but they have the legal right to participate in management and the setting of policy and procedures.

It is the responsibility of the local housing authority to make sure that this is implemented, especially for all major decisions. Tenants should be included in hiring/promotions of/for employees with whom they have direct dealings, but they are not. I wonder how many residents know that they are entitled, by law, to see the yearly budget and offer input.)

Four of the five properties have associations,  where purportedly, residents can bring their issues to be relayed to the board and/or maintenance in a timely fashion.

Arlington Housing Authority logo
Of two programs said to be at the skills center, one of them,  Young Child Reading, has not occurred.

Menotomy Manor  does not have a tenants' association.  The complex has 179 family units. It has not had a tenants' organization for more than nine years. 

Connor feels that the families at Menotomy Manor are so burdened with child care and jobs (often single-parent households) that they don’t have the time or interest in forming a tenant’s association. I don’t know if he has reached out to substantiate this explanation. He states, “This is why the board took the initiative to build the community center on site and coordinate the many after school programs as well as various cook outs.” Does he mean that after-school programs and cook-outs are a substitute for a tenants' association?

'Life and Skills Center' – Alternative to a tenants' association

Since he raised the subject, let’s look as the community center. The “Life and Skills Center” built in 2016 at Menotomy Manor, is cited as the crown jewel in the AHA list of accomplishments. 

I asked AHA Chair Nick Mitropoulos about the history of the center’s activities. He was good enough to give me a list of the programs and activities for the past five years. 

He listed two programs for children -- “Operation Success” and “Young Child Reading,” an English as a second language class that began last year; a laundry room (two washers and two dryers); a FoodLink  pantry closet from which food is distributed to residents who wait in line outside the building (pre- and post-Covid), an on-site management office, a large maintenance shop and a police substation.

 Mitropoulos says that the director and board are “looking at educational, social and recreational-type programs” to initiate post-Covid. ( I don’t recall hearing any of these plans discussed in the last nine months, but perhaps I missed them.)

I did some research. “Operation Success” was an after-school homework club for children grades 7-12. It  was held in a vacant unit on the property for years. Although the  community center opened in 2016, the homework club was held in a vacant unit on the property until 2020.

 “Young Child Reading” was, I believe, an idea for a preschool that never materialized. Mitropoulos didn’t include it when he described the other activities.

 What were the “many after-school programs” Connor cites? If there were such programs, I can’t find any evidence of them.

In truth, the community center would likely be a place of gathering for tenants had there been activities planned, but that has not been the case. To appear as though the center was a hubbub of collegial activity, resident interaction, and “life-skills” programming for four years is untrue. 

Beneficial, creative ideas for the community center

There are so many  ways in which the center could have been used in the four years pre-Covid to improve the lives of the residents and their children -- multicultural events, tech and GED classes, legal assistance, child care,  preventive health-care programs, dance lessons, game nights, job training, document translation, craft classes, educational classes, etc.  

Given the nearly 400 children living at Menotomy Manor, shouldn’t children’s activities be a high priority? They could include after-school and weekend arts and craft classes, a  library, music lessons, homework club for younger kids, indoor sports, baby-sitting instruction, karate or computer  programming.

Funding for these types of programs and activities could be obtained through grants. Community volunteers would certainly come forward to provide programs and activities. High school students could be tapped for community service .What a shame to have the space  in a costly new building and let it go unused. The new building could be an exceptionally vibrant resource for the families. Why hasn’t it been used for these purposes?  

Why not a full-time, on-site social worker?

Of course, Menotomy Manor is but one of the five AHA properties. The other four complexes are home to seniors and individuals with disabilities. Residents need  a full-time, licensed social worker who is a professionally trained advocate, able to handle their  unique social, emotional and physical needs. Seniors aging in place who are disabled (or not) often need social and  emotional support.

Many residents who have lived long, fulfilling lives come to a point where they are without either  means or family support. They may be living alone for the first time in their lives. They may have come from a home with a yard; from a neighborhood where they were an integral part of the community. Many of the housing authorities I researched employ on-site, full-time social workers and other mental health professionals available to the residents. Why doesn’t ours?

Final thoughts

Naturally, management of any large-scale properties presents enormous challenges. It is an exceedingly difficult job if done well. It takes the energy, effort and commitment of people who genuinely care about helping others.

I think that we all want board members and a director who take their roles seriously. Reading a budget and implementing state regulations is only a part of their job. Compassionate, caring focus on the residents is essential.

They are not powerless. That is simply not true.

Some members of the Arlington Housing Authority board are working on strategic initiatives for an effective communication system, more funding opportunities, and  more social services. It’s simply a matter of motivation to do the right thing.

It goes without saying that all of the board members and the executive director of the Arlington Housing Authority must take their obligations seriously. It is my hope that new board members, as they are elected, will work cooperatively with those who are there for the people they serve.

In a recent discussion, I asked Michael Alperin, executive director of the Brookline Housing Authority, what made his organization successful.  He responded, “My staff, and I ask ourselves one question every day; how can we make our residents’ lives better?”

Amen to that.  

[Afternote: I’m extremely pleased to report that, as of this writing, several residents at Menotomy Manor are in the process of forming a tenant organizing group. The organizing group will move forward and form a tenants' association, as per state regulations. Temporarily, one volunteer resident will attend monthly maintenance meetings with the other four association officers.] 

Jan. 28, 2021: Commissioner tells what Housing Authority can -- and can't -- do

This viewpoint was published Thursday, March 4, 2021. It was updated the same day to correct information that the editor added to the red box, above.

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