Vexed Easthampton Housing Authority residents look to organize

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    Left, Jae Couture and Denise "Dee" Ducharme, residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, talk with city counselors, Tom Peake and Brad Riley, about forming a tenants association. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT 

  • Left, Brad Riley, and Tom Peake, Easthampton city councilors, meet with left Jae Couture and Denise “Dee” Ducharme, residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, about forming a tenants association. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT

  • Easthampton City Councilors Brad Riley, left, and Tom Peake meet with Denise “Dee” Ducharme, foreground, and Jae Couture, residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, about forming a tenants association. FOR THE GAZETTE/CAITLIN MOTT

  • Left, Brad Riley, Easthampton city councilor, meets with left , Denise “Dee” Ducharme, and Jae Couture , residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, about forming a tenants association. Not shown is city councilor Tom Peake. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT

  • Left, Brad Riley, and Tom Peake, Easthampton city councilors, meet with left , Denise “Dee” Ducharme, and Jae Couture, residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, about forming a tenants association. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT

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    Left, Jae Couture and Denise "Dee" Ducharme, residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, talk with city councilors, Tom Peake and Brad Riley, about forming a tenants association. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT 

  • Tom Peake, a Easthampton city councilor, talks with Jae Couture during a meeting with Denise “Dee” Ducharme, and Brad Riley. Couture and Ducharme, both residents of Cliffview Manor in Easthampton, are trying to start a tenants association. PHOTO BY CAITLIN MOTT

Staff Writer
Published: 3/6/2022 7:57:03 PM
Modified: 3/6/2022 7:56:28 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Residents who live in six Easthampton Housing Authority properties will soon decide whether to form a tenants organization to represent them — a move that, if successful, would be the first such organization formed since the housing authority was established in 1948.

The effort is being led by two Cliffview Manor residents, Denise “Dee” Ducharme and Jae Couture, as a way to raise the voices of some tenants of the 188 units who live in the properties that include more than 50 buildings citywide. Ducharme and Couture allege that property managers, including Executive Director Deborah Walker, have provided poor customer service and have created a general atmosphere of intimidation.

Ducharme, a certified community health care worker, says that many tenants are afraid to come forward to complain.

“They’ve been in fear of getting eviction notices if they speak out,” Ducharme said. “And I cannot just let this go. I have to do something.”

That something for Ducharme means running for president in an election of a soon-to-be-formed tenants organization. Couture is running for vice president.

Walker declined to comment for this story, on the advice of the Easthampton Housing Authority’s attorney, she wrote in a statement.

As executive director, Walker oversees the housing authority, which is responsible for administering public housing programs to meet the needs of the elderly, disabled and low-income families. The authority is governed by a five-member board of commissioners, four of whom are appointed by the mayor and approved by the City Council and fifth who is appointed by the governor. There are currently two vacant seats.

Gathering concerns

In a recent meeting, Couture and Ducharme joined a number of residents from each of the city’s housing authority properties to hear concerns publicly. They were joined by City Councilor Tom Peake and At-Large Councilor Brad Riley. Both councilors described the meeting as “an immense outpouring” of emotions.

“Some of the allegations that we heard were very concerning ... some stated that they were basically denied reasonable accommodations and some of it sounds illegal,” said Peake, noting that he hadn’t seen all of the documentation to make more definitive statements. “But as a baseline, it’s apparent that there are unacceptable levels of customer service, and that’s enough for us to start a conversation about.”

Couture, who has lived at Cliffview since June 2021, agreed with the councilors’ assessment of the meeting, noting that the outpouring is what moved her to extend help to her neighbors in bringing matters to the attention of management.

“I had tears in my eyes. My heart was broken for some of these people,” she said. “I’ve also knocked on doors and talked to people (outside of the meeting) and heard their stories … It really is heartbreaking. They’re so afraid to do anything.”

Ducharme said that she personally experienced challenges in communicating with Walker in the past and described letters sent to her by Walker as “condescending.”

In one such letter on Feb. 8, Walker described a previous correspondence about Ducharme’s door-to-door solicitation of tenants regarding “concerns and/or complaints at their residency at the Easthampton Housing Authority.” Walker also noted that she had received multiple emails from the Massachusetts Deparment of Housing and Commmunity Development (DHCD) indicating complaints about her, but had never received any complaints from Ducharme to address.

“I would be more than happy to discuss any of your personal concerns or complaints. If your concerns are related to other tenants I cannot discuss another tenant’s issue without their authorization to do so,” Walker wrote in the letter.

Ducharme and Couture also collected a number of letters and notes written by fellow housing authority tenants that detailed various difficult incidents they had experienced with management of the city properties. They declined to give specifics citing a fear of retribution against themselves and other tenants.

The tenants reached out to state Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton, for support, and asked him to send the letters on to DHCD.

“I’m waiting to hear back on any next steps they have,” Carey said. “I’ve also been telling the residents they really should be going to the (housing authority) board, because they have the direct oversight of the housing authority. That’s where the decisions will be made.

“DHCD sets the guidelines that everyone has to follow, but neither DHCD or myself can come in and run the place. The board is the one that can make those decisions and make those changes, if any.”

In reaching out to Housing Authority board member Joseph McCoy, he directed requests for comment to the board’s chairperson, Elizabeth Burnham, who was appointed by the governor. Contact information for Burnham or the other two members of the board is unavailable through the city’s website.

Carey noted that many were nervous about putting their names out there, and pointed to other communities that had decided to form their own tenants association. He suggested Ducharme speak with groups like the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants.

With a local tenants organization, tenants will have collective rights to file grievances in a more organized way, said Peake.

“Even beyond that, they’ll have the ability to have their own elected point of contact so that when people feel they aren’t being treated appropriately or their rights aren’t being provided to them, they’ll have the ability to have a president and vice president that they can go to and at that point they can engage with the housing authority and their director and board in a more organized way,” he said.

Peake, whose precinct includes Cliffview and Sunrise manors, says he has fielded a number of complaints about housing authority management from constituents over the years. He is encouraging them to form a tenants organization.

“It’s been something that’s been a source of continued frustration for me because I want to be able to deliver to my constituents, but how you actually do that has been challenging and frustrating for me, and frankly for any of the tenants,” he said. “There are folks there saying ‘you haven’t done anything for us,’ and ya know what? They’re completely right.”

Although Ducharme and Couture have announced they’d like to run for office, they also note that there is still time for others to run. Those whave additional questions or are interested in running for office for the tenants organization, should email jaecouture2013@gmail.com. Nominations and signatures must be turned in by Wednesday, March 16.

Riley, the at-large councilor, whose background is in advocacy in transitional housing, said that the best-case scenario from these circumstances will be that it spurs a conversation about what Easthampton wants to do for its elderly population. Even if nothing is discovered that rises to the level of a civil rights violation, he feels that there is still a professional conduct issue that still persists.

“I don’t really know yet what my capabilities are and what my role is, other than, I just know that people with disabilities and people who are elderly are forgotten in society, and their voices are silenced all the time,” he said. “So if I can do anything to put a megaphone behind what they’re asking for, I know I have to do that. The way I see it, if I’m fortunate to live into this age group, I hope that there are people that will stick up for me when I feel most vulnerable. I owe it to them and I owe it to myself to just do the right thing.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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