Editorial: New rule on air conditioners mishandled in Northampton

  • Warren Douglass, a McDonald House tenant, stands in his bedroom next to the window air conditioner he is no longer allowed to use.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 6/29/2018 10:19:01 PM

As the region heads into its first extended heat wave of the season during the next week, we hope the Northampton Housing Authority has taken steps to ensure that all McDonald House residents who want portable air conditioners can get them, even if that means the authority pays for them.

It’s only the right thing to do given how late in the year — on May 2, when the temperature that day peaked at 90 degrees — the housing authority chose to notify residents who live in the seven-story building on Old South Street about a new rule banning window air conditioners.

The chairman of the Housing Authority’s board said the timing “wasn’t the best,” but otherwise washed the board’s hands of the issue, saying that day-to-day management decisions fall to Executive Director Cara Clifford and her staff.

That may be so, but state law gives the board a simple charge — “manage, control and govern” the authority. Northampton’s board should have done a better job overseeing a decision that has financial and, quite likely, health concerns for many tenants.

Not only should the announcement about the air conditioners have been made in January — either this year or next — to give people time to figure out other means to cool their homes, but the Housing Authority should have paid to replace the window units with portable air conditioners kept inside the apartments.

The $100 rental credit the authority offered for the roughly $200 to $300 machines was a starting point, as was offering a payment plan of $25 a month to tenants. But given the poor timing of the new rule and the lower income levels of its tenants, the authority should pay for the air conditioners this one time.

Many tenants were not happy about the directive, and who can blame them? For some, an extra $200 is hard to come by, especially for those tenants who bought their own air conditioning units in recent years. “It’s $200 I don’t have,” said Warren Douglass, who has lived at the McDonald House for eight years. “This is low-income right here.”

Other tenants don’t understand why the housing authority has chosen to focus now on air conditioning as a safety problem. They point to the many medical conditions affecting elderly tenants that will be exacerbated by the heat. They also fear the impact of heat on pets who live in the McDonald House.

These concerns have merit. Northampton Director of Public Health Merridith O’Leary said that air conditioning is important to help keep heat-related conditions under control. Her office fielded some calls about the new policy, but the city does not have oversight over the housing authority.

The rationale behind the ban has nothing to do state law, which does not govern air conditioners. Instead, explained Clifford, the ban was put in place for the first time this year for safety, liability and workers’ compensation issues. Yet city officials can find no cases of people being injured by falling air conditioners. The safety explanation seems like an over-abundance of caution.

In addition to forbidding air conditioners at the McDonald House, Clifford’s directive this spring also stated that maintenance staff will no longer install or remove air conditioners in all housing authority properties. That’s at odds with improving safety. It is logical that a trained maintenance worker could do a better job installing an air conditioner than a tenant.

While the Northampton Housing Authority has done many good things since Clifford was hired as executive director in 2015, this decision was mishandled. We hope that Clifford and the housing authority in the future use more foresight about the impact on tenants before implementing such significant changes.

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