Northampton Housing Authority tenant advocacy at issue

  • Ryan O'Donnell will be modifying his proposed home rule petition on tenant representation on the board of the Northampton Housing Authority at a public forum Tuesday.

Staff Writer
Published: 11/12/2018 10:36:23 PM

NORTHAMPTON – City Council President Ryan O’Donnell is revising a home rule petition to change the composition of the Northampton Housing Authority, reducing the number of new tenant representatives on the board in the proposal from six to one. He said that the changes leave the petition “still in the same kind of spirit.”

“Politics is the art of compromise,” O’Donnell said.

The petition was originally put forward as an attempt to bring more democracy to the Northampton Housing Authority. Under the revisions, the new tenant representative would be appointed by the mayor. In the initial plan, the six tenant representatives would have been elected by the tenants themselves.

Not everyone is happy with this change.

“The whole idea was to have the people living in housing elect them,” said Tom Burton, a tenant at Walter Salvo House.

O’Donnell had previously said that elections were desirable because they would give tenants a say over decisions that effect their lives.

“I’d very much like to see the method by which we get more tenants on the board to be an election, if possible,” O’Donnell said, at a public forum on his original proposal.

Burton said that the increase in representation didn’t matter if the mayor was appointing them. Burton referred to the mayor as “fundamentally anti-democratic.”

“I think that it’s completely bogus to have the person appointed,” Burton said. “They should be elected.”

Burton also pointed to this summer’s controversy over the authority banning window air conditioning units at McDonnell House and Salvo House. This was done by Northampton Housing Authority Executive Director Cara Clifford without consulting the board, and was rescinded after significant public outcry.

“The mayor’s appointees have been sort of asleep at the switch,” he said.

Edgardo Cancel, who serves as the head of the tenant’s association at Hampshire Heights, said that he’d been excited by the original proposal.

“I was really hoping for it,” Cancel said.

However, Cancel hadn’t had a lot of faith that it would have advanced past the Northampton level.

“It was a huge switch,” he said.

Still, Cancel said that the revised proposal was worth supporting even more than the previous version.

“I think it actually has a chance,” he said.

Cancel is also a member of the Northampton Housing Partnership, whom he described as “a group of folks with a lot of integrity,” and expressed approval at the revision adding a member from it.

Burton said that the new changes “keep things the status quo,” and that the original version of the proposal would have allowed people to have a say in their own lives.

Currently the board consists of five members, one of which is appointed by the governor and four of which are appointed by the mayor. One of the mayor’s appointees must be a tenant, although the board currently contains two tenant members because the governor’s appointee is also a tenant.

The revision would also add a second new appointee, who would be a member of the Northampton Housing Partnership, a board appointed by the mayor which focuses on identifying and addressing the city’s housing needs, with a focus on low and moderate-income housing concerns.

A home rule petition requires the support of both the City Council and the mayor in order to be advanced to the city’s representatives on Beacon Hill, after which it must be passed into law at the state level in order to take effect.

“This is really a council-driven piece of legislation,” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. “He (O’Donnell) came to me.”

O’Donnell said that it was his general impression in talking to the mayor and others that the election portion was an issue.

“My main goal was to increase tenant representations on the board,” said O’Donnell.

Narkewicz said that his own concerns were more about the size and composition of the board.

“I thought that that was a concern,” Narkewicz said, on potentially having an 11-person board.

O’Donnell also said that he took in input from other quarters on the proposal as well.

In another change to the proposal, the new tenant member could be able to be selected from those assisted by the authority through rental subsidy who live in Northampton, and not only those residing at authority properties.

O’Donnell said that he worked with the mayor in order to come up with a revision to his original proposal that could be advanced, and Narkewicz said that they discussed what kind of modification he would be comfortable supporting.

Despite the changes, O’Donnell characterized the revised proposal as “meaningful reform.”

“I think you have to compare it to the status quo,” O’Donnell said.

Narkewicz and O’Donnell agreed that adding a member from the Northampton Housing Partnership would create a stronger connection to the city.

Although O’Donnell said that he hasn’t heard from many tenants about his original proposal, he did say that the original proposal’s reception has been a positive one from that quarter.

“I think people are enthusiastic about greater tenant representation,” said O’Donnell.

O’Donnell will be introducing his changes at the next forum on the proposal, which will take place on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers. The proposal may be acted on as soon as Thursday’s meeting of the City Council.

“This is a compromise arrangement,” said O’Donnell. “I think it’s going to be a big improvement.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.


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