Home rules: Easthampton Housing Authority official, tenants at odds over American flags, flowers, barbecue grills

Wednesday, April 23, 2014
EASTHAMPTON — Dickinson Court resident Richard Pietraszkiewicz, 63, was upset when Easthampton Housing Authority Executive Director Jane Sakiewicz told him earlier this year that he would have to remove a small American flag stapled to a post outside his apartment.

He wasn’t alone; others at the apartment complex for low-income seniors and disabled people on Liberty Street were unhappy about being told to remove their flags.

“I said, ‘I’m a veteran, I served my country and you want me to take down my flag?’” Pietraszkiewicz recalled in an interview at his apartment last month. “She said, ‘Absolutely.’”

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Sakiewicz maintains she was simply enforcing a years-old Easthampton Housing Authority rule prohibiting mounting anything outside or inside apartments because it damages the building. The rule had not been enforced for years, she acknowledged. After the Gazette inquired about the change, Sakiewicz obtained permission from the state to install metal brackets to hold flags at Dickinson Court and Cliffview Manor, another senior housing complex.

While that compromise resolved the flag issue, residents of Easthampton’s state-subsidized housing have a list of other grievances about regulations they say are making their homes less homey. They can’t tend flower gardens in their front yards. They are not allowed to have hanging plants or other mounted decorations on their stoops. They’ve been ordered to remove barbecue grills from their yards.

Since October, when the Easthampton Housing Authority hired Sakiewicz and simultaneously began reviewing and revising its policies, residents have objected to new rules and enforcement of long-abandoned regulations. In addition, some bristle at Sakiewicz’s style.

They say her enforcement methods are abrasive and she is insensitive to longtime residents trying to deal with all the changes.

Mary LaFogg, 81, a five-year resident of Dickinson Court, said she was among those who complained to Sakiewicz when she was told to remove her flag.

“She just kept saying, ‘I’m just the messenger,’” LaFogg recalled, so she asked to speak to whoever instituted the policy. She said Sakiewicz promised to let her know when the next board meeting was, but never did.

Sakiewicz said tenants do not usually attend the board’s meetings, but a meeting April 14 at Cliffview Manor drew numerous residents of the complex, who complained about, among other things, the mounting rule, which now means they cannot have blinds on their porches.

Meanwhile, tenants of Glad Acres, a group of 31 subsidized single-family homes off South Street, presented the board with a petition signed by 24 residents requesting that they be allowed to keep their barbecue grills. The grills were banned Feb. 10 for fire prevention reasons after an incident in which a grill located too close to a house melted siding.

Sakiewicz said she hopes the flag compromise will facilitate better relations between the authority and the tenants, which she admits have been rocky since she was hired Oct. 15.

Stricter enforcement

In a recent interview, Sakiewicz and Easthampton Housing Authority Board Vice Chairman Edward Swinicki said the board decided to update its policies and more strictly enforce rules last fall. This is because the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees local housing authorities, has been cracking down on enforcement in the wake of serious compliance issues discovered in Chelsea. The former director there is being investigated for, among other things, allegedly cheating on housing inspections.

“When I came on board, we sat down and decided what my focus should be, and they wanted to make sure our policies were current,” Sakiewicz said. She said many rules had not been updated for a number of years.

Residents were not individually notified or invited to attend the meetings when the policies were being reviewed, but Sakiewicz said the meeting agendas were publicly posted.

One new rule the board implemented allows Sakiewicz to ban specific tenants from the Housing Authority office at 112 Holyoke St. She declined to say if the rule was in reaction to a particular incident, but said it is “extremely rare” that she has to use it.

Pietraszkiewicz and several other tenants said the real issue isn’t the rules, it’s the director’s unwillingness to work with them on any of their complaints. Sakiewicz disagrees. “They can certainly come to me about anything,” she said.

In addition, some said Sakiewicz discouraged them from taking their issues to the Housing Authority Board. Susan Sachs, a lawyer who helped a tenant appeal Sakiewicz’s decision to ban his dog from Dickinson Court after it nipped a maintenance worker, said the director violated his rights by not informing him he could appeal. Sachs said Sakiewicz told the board at a hearing that she banned the dog from the property based on a recommendation from Animal Control Officer Robert Jackman, but Jackman denies recommending that action. The dog was eventually allowed to stay under certain conditions.

In an interview on her porch in March, Dickinson Court resident Diane Smith, 46, said she was “fed up” with the new rules and enforcement of long-abandoned policies and felt Sakiewicz was disrespectful to the residents, so she did not attend a meeting Sakiewicz had with Dickinson Court residents to discuss the changes.

“I was afraid I would get too mad,” she said.

Pietraszkiewicz says the way tenants have been treated by the housing authority is “ridiculous.”

“This place is for elderly people, it’s probably your final home before you leave this Earth, and we have to deal with this?” he said of the insensitive treatment.

Sakiewicz, 54, of South Hadley, was new to the field of state-subsidized housing when the board hired her to replace outgoing director Deborah Barthelette in October. She has a master’s degree in business administration and worked as a paralegal before taking the job.

The city’s Housing Authority oversees Dickinson Court, Cliffview Manor, Glad Acres, the John F. Sullivan Housing for the Elderly at 108 Everett St., and Sunrise Manor for seniors at 17 Paradise Drive.

Dickinson Court

In an interview at the Housing Authority office, Board Vice Chairman Swinicki denied that residents were told they could not have flags; he said they were just told they could not be mounted to the building. Once the state OK’d the mounting as long as the maintenance workers did it, the authority spent $1,300 to buy the brackets.

A few residents have called to thank them for the compromise, Sakiewicz said.

“We were trying to find a solution that would maintain the integrity of the buildings and let everyone have a flag,” Swinicki said. But the rule remains, so any other brackets installed by residents, such as those used to hold plants and decorations, must be removed.

Some residents, including LaFogg, are disappointed that they will no longer be able to have gardens in front of their units. “This is kind of a short life, and you can’t have any flowers to look at?” she said.

Maintenance workers will soon begin removing the flower gardens and reseeding the spots to turn them back into lawn. At the same time, they will create two community gardens where residents can plant instead, Sakiewicz said. Tenants are allowed to keep plants in pots under 15 inches on their porches or patios, but not in walkways or near doorways, as that would violate fire code.

While some of the other housing complexes have shrub beds in front of units where tenants can plant, Dickinson Court does not, so residents for years had been “tearing up the lawn” to plant flowers in front of their units, Sakiewicz said. The landscaper who mows the lawns charges more if workers have to mow around the gardens, she added.

Sakiewicz said that while she did not set the rules for tenants, she thinks they are reasonable ones.

“There are 188 units that we’re responsible for, so there has to be structure so all tenants can enjoy their homes,” she said. “Most of the rules have been there, in their leases, and it’s my job to enforce the rules.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.