I’m getting tired of hearing, ‘We’re looking into this. We’re looking into that.'"                   -- Winslow Tower President Pam Hauser

“We’ve got to forgive the month of February because I know our staff have been dealing with the [fire] at Chestnut Manor. Unfortunately, we can’t just wave a wand and hire new staff.”                                                    -- Board Chair Brian Connor

Intellibeam technician installs security cameras at Menotomy Manor. / Melanie Gilbert photoIntellibeam technician installs security cameras at Menotomy Manor. / Melanie Gilbert photo

The Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) board and executive leadership heard from concerned residents and tenant association leadership during a lively board meeting held Wednesday, Feb. 16.

Residents and tenant association officers from the senior and family-housing developments complained about timely and accurate communication and action on a range of health and safety issues, including pest control, security and maintenance.

“I’m getting tired of hearing, ‘We’re looking into this. We’re looking into that,'" said Winslow Tower President Pam Hauser, during the hourlong Zoom meeting. "Something has to be done.”

Board Chair Brian Connor responded to Hauser, saying that “We’ve got to forgive the month of February because I know our staff have been dealing with the [fire] at Chestnut Manor. Unfortunately, we can’t just wave a wand and hire new staff.”

The tragic fire at Chestnut Manor in January killed one resident, injured another, displaced 21 residents from 18 apartments and caused extensive fire, smoke and water damage to the property for senior and disabled residents. The initial investigation determined the cause to be a faulty electric baseboard heater, but the final report has not yet been publicly released.

The town’s inspectional services department performed electrical bus duct testing at the state-owned Chestnut Manor last week. The testing measures the voltage in the electrical system to identify flashover or hot spots in the circuitry. According to Executive Director Jack Nagle, “the bus duct testing was a success, and the results were good.”

He thanked the town’s departments of Council on Aging and Health and Human Services for transporting Chestnut Manor residents to Town Hall and engaging them in a variety of activities while the electrical work was conducted.

Staffing changes, vacancies at state agency

The communitywide complaints come in the wake of a yearlong executive-level staffing turnover at the authority.

Former executive director John Griffin, who led the agency for nearly 15 years, took six-months personal leave before his retirement last October.

Operations Manager Jack Nagle served as interim director in Griffin’s absence. In December, the five-member board of directors selected Nagle as the executive director.

Bob Cronin, the longtime director of maintenance, retired in December, and he was replaced by Chris Partridge, formerly a maintenance foreman for the authority. He stepped into an expanded role as director of maintenance and modernization.

New position to address management, communication needs

In addition to these internal promotions, the authority is recruiting for an assistant executive director, which Nagle said will absorb his previous operations-manager responsibilities – as well as assume other critical duties -- under one management-level role that reports directly to him.

In an email to YourArlington, Nagle wrote that “The Assistant Executive Director will have the duties of the operations manager as well as additional responsibilities related to higher-level planning and execution related to the administration of our state and federal programs.”

According to the job description, the $90,000-to-$100,000 position has “responsibility for ensuring high-quality customer service, excellent written and verbal communication skills and the ability to work with people of various socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Jen Hernandez, Menotomy Manor Tenant Association president, said she hoped these personnel moves would improve communications between the authority and the residents.

“We need to fix these breakdowns in communication, so that we can all work together and accomplish as much as possible for the [residents],” she said.

Connor concurred, offering, “I think we’re all on the same page, here. I’m fully aware of your association’s concerns.”

Executive director update on Chestnut Manor fire

For years, under Griffin’s administration, the board meeting minutes noted that “Mr. Griffin updated the board on all ongoing projects” even as none were entered into the record. In contrast, the monthly reports by Nagle to the board presents a detailed accounting of authority projects.

In his opening comments, Nagle thanked all the people and departments who helped coordinate a wrap-around response to the January fire at Chestnut Manor.

He said the AHA has successfully found permanent housing for all those displaced from the fire at Chestnut Manor. He cited the collaborative effort among the AHA, the Town of Arlington’s Health and Human Services, the Somerville Homeless Coalition, Minuteman Senior Services, the Red Cross, Arlington EATS and Food Link.

The task force, made up of these partners, “has been essential in assisting the displaced residents’ transition into their new units, as well as helping them get furniture, clothing, food and other essentials. Additionally, I would like to commend the great efforts by the maintenance department in getting vacant units ready, and the AHA administrative staff in getting residents into new units.”

He also stated that the fund set up by the town to help residents raised more than $40,000, thanks to many generous donors.

CPA funds Menotomy Manor window project

Nagle confirmed that the agency received $600,000 in Community Preservation Act Committee funding for the Menotomy Manor window project.

The AHA board voted to approve ABACUS Architects + Planners to perform the $20,000 window survey at the family-housing complex in East Arlington. The survey is required by the Department of Housing and Community Development to secure state-level funding and construction approval.

ABACUS was the lead architecture design firm for many other housing authority projects, including the $13 million kitchen and bath/handicap-unit project at the manor, completed in 2009. ABACUS also performed the design work on the recently completed Drake Village envelope restoration project.

Security cameras, unsecured work

Board members and residents alike raised concerns with Nagle and Partridge about security-camera installation work done on the Menotomy Manor property in early February.

Hernandez said proper 48-hour notification was given to the wrong units, other units were accessed without the proper notification and units were unlocked and left unattended by maintenance while the work was performed by outside contractors.

“The camera people [from Intellibeam] were going into units unaccompanied,” said Hernandez. “Tenants are finding out information from the camera company rather than the housing authority or the tenant association. That’s really unacceptable and not following procedure.”

Board member Fiorella Badilla, a Menotomy Manor resident who was appointed by the Select Board to the tenant representative board position last August, echoed Hernandez’s concerns for oversight of the project by the maintenance staff. “It did say on the [resident] notice that they would be supervised. Do we need a supervisor to supervise the person who is supposed to be supervising things?”

Nagle said that “the standard protocol is to give residents 48-hour notice, and have somebody accompany them. We’ll look into the breakdown and address it accordingly.”

Surveillance vs. security concerns

AHA logo
No camera policy on AHA website.

In 2017, the Town of Arlington established a group to “examine the use of surveillance cameras situated in outdoor public spaces and their impact on privacy, civil liberties and human rights.” Committee members included Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine.

At that time, the AHA had installed 15 surveillance cameras on and near its manor property, and 74 cameras at each of its five properties (Winslow, Chestnut, Cusack, Drake, Hauser), without notice of public input, which then-committee member Steve Revilak found “disproportionate and concerning.”

As a state agency that owns and manages its properties and buildings, the AHA is not under town control with regards to its surveillance-camera network.

The display panels in the office of the property manager for Menotomy Manor provide multiscreen live feeds. There is not a camera policy on the AHA’s website, so it is not clear how the videos are monitored, how long they are retained or how they are secured.

State ARPA funds for domestic violence

The board voted to accept the state’s ARPA funding for $100,000 for a Domestic Violence Initiative sponsored by state Rep. Sean Garballey.

The AHA owns three properties in Arlington that are set aside for victims of domestic violence. The late Brian Greeley, known for his work as a board member on the AHA from 2006 to 2011, secured early Community Development Block Grant funding for the shelters.

Nagle said he was hopeful that “creating partnerships with domestic-violence agencies will help us find the best use of these funds” as well as “ensure that AHA residents that have experienced domestic violence can continue to get the support and services that will help them to thrive.”

Pests, rodents and other ‘critters’

Ellen Leigh, Cusack’s tenant association secretary, asked about the status of pest-control measures to “keep the critters at bay.” In December, the authority approved Terminix as the most “responsive, responsible and lowest bidder” for the integrated pest management contract.

Nagle said that pest problems “are ongoing, but they’re being addressed” by a weekly and monthly treatment schedule. Connor encouraged residents to “immediately call the office and report [mice] so we can get right on top of this.”

Leigh wondered whether an integrative approach was being followed and offered the example of “mice chewing away at the baseboard heaters, and they put steel wool in to address the problem,” wondering if there’s “a way to get information to the residents on what has been done” and what treatments work.

Vice Chair Jo Anne Preston, who proposed the integrative pest-management approach for the housing authority, said that to be successful, pest management has to be a “proactive program.”

In response, Nagle said that “we will start identifying trends and common issues” to address problems through the housing authority buildings. “We’re trying to move toward helping the residents and educating them to be part of the solution by [finding] the root causes that need to be addressed properly.”

The next AHA meeting is March 16 at 7 p.m.

Feb. 7, 2022: Electrical upgrade OK'd following Chestnut Manor fire

This news summary by YourArlington freelancer Melanie Gilbert was published Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022.