Last summer, I first heard from Barbara Beaudette and her crew of fellow residents at the Tarrytown Road apartments, a complex of 102 apartments owned and managed by the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority.
The apartments house low-income elderly and disabled tenants.
Beaudette and her collaborators were fed up, and she had organized a letter writing campaign to get my ear.
Five people spelled out their complaints: stairways and hallways that don’t get cleaned, burned out light bulbs in elevators and hallways, cruddy laundry equipment, automatic entrance doors that work sporadically and apartments that go without heat for days until an aging heating system is repaired.
“They think we’re a bunch of little old complainers,” said Beaudette, 71, who invited me to her apartment building last week. “I don’t call them to aggravate them; I call them for maintenance.”
Dirty floors and a slow response time for repairs don’t rank high on the list of tenant grievances that I’ve heard over the years. I’m more likely to hear about bedbugs, lead poisoning, upstairs drug dealers and absentee landlords.
But Beaudette said her lease guarantees a safe, clean and sanitary place to live, and the housing authority isn’t doing so.
“This winter, my apartment was 52 degrees,” said Georgette Houle, who is 79. “I had coats and coats, blankets and jackets.” Yes, it was eventually repaired, but now there’s a hole in her wall for piping, and it’s been there for two months.
“I have a sink that does Mount Vesuvius,” said Ellen Tatrau, 74, about the dirty water that sometimes backs up into her kitchen sink.
They all have their stories of how they ended up in public housing: a child whose sickness sapped up their savings; a husband with Alzheimer’s disease; small pension and Social Security checks that don’t keep ahead of the bills.
“When I got here, I was broke,” Houle said.
All said they like their apartments. They feature big windows and an entrance road that encircles a grove of tall pines making it look like a condo development rather than public housing.
“What they think is important to us,” said Dick Webster, the acting director of Manchester housing. He said he’d prefer the tenants deal with the on-site manager, but he’d take their call.
And he can get things done. The day after I first called Webster for this article, maintenance people cleaned hallways and stairways. (Which increased my stature in the eyes of Beaudette and her buddies.)
He also said upgrades are scheduled. Hallways are going to be stripped and waxed. Entryways will be upgraded. And the hallway lighting will be replaced, likely with LED fixtures, he said.
Other complaints can’t be solved. For example, the housing authority removed the art that tenants had hung on walls at the demand of the fire department, Webster said. The art would represent an impediment for tenants to feel their way along a darkened hallway in case of an evacuation.
Webster said light bulbs are replaced whenever they burn out. The Beaudette gang tells me five bulbs have to be burned out before they’ll be replaced. (During a visit two weeks ago, three were dark.)
Webster said he prefers that tenants start with the manager of their housing complex. But he’s supportive of anything to improve communication.
Obviously communication isn’t working if tenants have to reach out to their alderman (to no avail, they said), and then organize a campaign to draw a reporter’s attention. It’s just as bad for others.
“We have a hard time getting information about when the board (of directors) meets,” said Sarah Jane Knoy, director of Granite State Organizing Project, a grassroots group that pushes empowerment and social justice issues. The best notice they get, Knoy said, is a call from Webster on the day of the meeting.
The housing authority doesn’t say anything about director meetings on its website either. But Webster assures me that notices are officially posted at City Hall.
Knoy said federal rules guarantee the right to form a tenant association, but that’s not always easy. At the Kelley Falls housing project, for example, management has closed the community room, meaning there is no place for a group of interested tenants to meet and form a council, she said.
Webster said he closed the community room because it is not handicapped accessible.
Beaudette said she’d like to start a tenant council, but most people don’t want to get involved or are afraid of eviction. Still, it’s important to speak up, Knoy said.
“If people feel management is not responsive, they stop caring, stop doing their part,” Knoy said. “Then it becomes a vicious cycle that ends in dilapidation.”