‘More residents’ voices’: Housing Authority board changed through legislation

  • Former Northampton City Council President Ryan O’Donnell in Pulaski Park on August 6, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING  

Staff Writer
Published: 9/15/2020 1:24:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Northampton Housing Authority’s board is set to gain two new members.

Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed an act that changes the structure of Northampton’s board to include one member who is a tenant of the housing authority or is in the rental subsidy program, and another member who is on the Northampton Housing Partnership board. Both members will be appointed by the mayor. Currently, the Northampton Housing Authority board is made up of five people, at least one of which must, by law, be a tenant representative.

Edgardo Cancel, former head of the Hampshire Heights tenants association, said the change is good news.

“Having more residents’ voices at the table who can speak to the issues at hand from a personal experience is a huge help,” he wrote in an email to the Gazette. “It means our public housing community (and therefore our community at large) will be stronger and better.”

Currently, two members of the board are tenants, according to the board’s chair, Marilyn Richards. “I really have no opinion on this,” she wrote of the change in an email to the Gazette, “but I am proud that the NHA currently has two out of five as residents.”

Two years ago, Ryan O’Donnell, former City Council member and president, proposed the home rule petition seeking the change in the Housing Authority board, which must pass at the local and state level.

O’Donnell grew up in low-income housing in Amherst, the Rolling Green apartments. “I’m just a big believer in affordable housing,” he said.

Instances of poor treatment of residents in Northampton made him suggest the home rule petition — essentially a request to the state Legislature — which was required to make a change, O’Donnell said. He pointed to the Housing Authority director banning window air-conditioning units in some of its buildings — which it did citing concerns that a falling air conditioner could injure someone — as an example of an issue tenants faced. That policy was changed after public outcry.

“The problem is,” O’Donnell said, “there isn’t enough tenant representation.”

Originally, O’Donnell proposed adding six tenant members to the Housing Authority board, but he revised the petition in order to give it a better chance of passing. The City Council approved the home rule petition, and then Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, introduced the rule as a bill, and Baker signed the bill into law on Sept. 3.

“My feeling is this doesn’t solve everything at all,” O’Donnell said, but for the board, “it’s an important first step to get more tenants’ voices on there.”

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