Tenants irked by Northampton Housing Authority crackdown on outside items, gardens



Published: 06-20-2017 8:11 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Erin Samson’s condo sits on a corner lot at the Hampshire Heights public housing development.

Like all the homes at Hampshire Heights, Samson’s has a covered front porch and an expanse of grass that leads out of her back door down to a cracked sidewalk. It’s sparse, but in the five years she has lived there, she has made it her own.

Small rocks line the path to her front porch and decorate the flower beds she has planted along the foundation. A voodoo doll tied to a stake keeps away the spirits that she claims haunt her apartment. Children’s toys and bikes are sheltered in the porch where she has hung dark green curtains to keep out the bright summer sun that she says exacerbates her chronic migraines.

In the back of the house, two raised garden beds host berries, snow peas, tomatoes, carrots and greens. Samson says working in the garden helps her 6-year-old daughter manage her anxiety, provides iron-rich food for her son’s anemia and the fresh produce helps offset grocery costs in the summer.

“It’s a lot of work,” Samson said. She estimated that she spends 30 minutes to an hour every day working in the garden. “Everybody is welcome to it.”

On June 5, Samson and other Northampton Housing Authority tenants woke to find a letter pushed under their doors. The letter, addressed to “All residents,” stated that, “it is a lease violation to have any personal items such as furniture and or trash in common areas.”

The letter further stated that residents had until June 12 to move offending items or they would be removed and the owner charged for disposal.

What followed has been the latest chapter in an ongoing debate of what differentiates trash from treasure, common space from public space, and community beautification from neighborhood blight.

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Many Hampshire Heights residents reported that Northampton Housing Authority officials came to the complex last Wednesday and took truckloads full of mattresses, couches, children’s toys and bicycles away.

Samson said she was told by one housing official that all plants need to be contained in pots on the porch. She’s worried, she said, about her garden.

“I’m not digging those vegetables up because they’re going to die,” she said.

Northampton Housing Authority Executive Director Cara Clifford said that what look like new regulations are actually rules laid out in the lease that prohibit the storage of “flammable materials” or large items that could potentially block fire exits.

“You rent the inside of the apartment, you don’t rent the common area,” Clifford said Thursday. “It’s all our property.”

The lease itself does not draw a clear line between common and public space but does state that residents are responsible for “all snow removal in compliance with city ordinance and for mowing lawns and trimming bushes as applicable.”

Many residents are left feeling confused about what they are allowed to have outside of their homes. “Even talking to us, they’re very vague,” Samson said of housing officials.

Clifford said she viewed the regulations as straightforward and said residents can always call and make an appointment to speak with her.

“You can’t get something you want if you don’t ask for it,” she said.

Many residents interviewed said they were afraid to speak out against the Housing Authority because they feared recrimination or retaliation. Many feared eviction if they dared to speak up.

Crystal Sabot, another Hampshire Heights resident said she disagreed with the recent policy announcement. She was asked to move a patio set that she had inherited from her mother. “I don’t feel it’s right, the way they’re going about it,” she said.

Sabot said she tried to make an appointment with Clifford but was rebuffed. “Every time you make a meeting with her she doesn’t answer phone calls,” Sabot said.

A resident for 35 years, Sabot said she was unafraid of the Housing Authority. “What are they going to do, come back and say that I’m speaking the truth?”

Lori Schmidt also had a vegetable garden but decided not to put in her summer plantings after receiving the June 5 notice. She said a housing official told her that her garden would not comply with her lease regulations.

Schmidt said the loss of her garden is “very upsetting.”

“My kids love to garden and all of a sudden they can’t have that as an enjoyable hobby.

“It’s just one thing after another,” she said. Pointing to a patch of wild blackberries she asked, “Do we have to take them down, too?”

Clifford said she was most concerned with old mattresses, couches and bedroom sets that residents stored on their porches and in the yards,

“It makes it look like the projects,” she said.

But she said gardens also present a problem.

“They shouldn’t be digging up the property that they don’t own or rent,” she said.

Edgar Cancel, coordinator for the Hampshire Heights tenants association, said he was in favor of the regulations.

“I love the idea of getting stuff picked up,” he said.

Cancel said maintenance has been improving over the last few years and he thinks the new administration is more receptive to tenant concerns.

“If we organize as a group and we bring things to the attention of the NHA, they listen,” he said.

He does agree, however, that the residents were not given enough notice.

“Give people more time to figure out what they’re going to do with their stuff,” he said.

“I wish housing would talk to us more as a community. The most important piece is communication between community and management.”