Aging Menotomy Manor windows and facade due for facelift. / ABACUS photoAging Menotomy Manor windows and facade due for facelift. / ABACUS photo

Communication, budget, transparency at issue

Tenant-led leadership dominated the two-hour March meeting of the Arlington Housing Authority, featuring a newly engaged Menotomy Manor Tenant Association, whose officers were elected last September after a nine-year absence from community representation.

President Jen Hernandez, who also sits on the Town of Arlington’s Community Development Block Grant committee, pressed executive director Jack Nagle on issues of communication, budget and transparency, saying that “any questions I ask, it’s always with good intentions and to help.”

She found an ally in tenant board representative member Fiorella Badilla, also a manor resident, who was appointed to the five-member board by the Select Board in August. Badilla echoed Hernandez’s view saying that “I just want to make sure we are doing the best we can.”

Concerns about window-design firm

Badilla opened the meeting by questioning the qualifications of ABACUS Planners & Architects, of Boston, to be the lead architect and designer on the proposed $4-million to-$6-million Menotomy Manor window-replacement project.

ABACUS, a Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) vendor, has a long history with the housing authority. It was lead designer on the $13-million kitchen-bathroom and handicap-access project that was completed at the family-housing complex in 2009.

Last year, ABACUS was hired to design the building-envelope restoration and door-replacement project at the Drake Cottages, the senior and disabled housing complex in Arlington Heights, for a total estimated cost of $1.4 million.

Peeling kitchen tiles

An in-house survey conducted by the Menotomy Manor Tenant Association, found that a substantial number of resident units were experiencing widespread peeling and lifting of the 13-year-old kitchen floor tiles, which Badilla attributed to poor construction materials and work overseen by ABACUS.

“The tiles were not properly [glued] down,” Badilla said. “They did not follow the instructions of whatever glue they used.”

Meeting minutes from 2005 and later show the projected costs of the kitchen and bathroom project exceeded DHCD funding estimates. According to board meeting minutes from 2005, ABACUS partner David Pollak cautioned the board that “changes would be necessary to bring costs more in line with DHCDs funding.” It’s not clear if those changes involved materials and construction like the tiles that Badilla spoke of.

In an email to YourArlington, Pollak said that he “would like an invitation to meet with the residents and the AHA Board of Commissioners to discuss their important concerns.”

Board Chair Brian Connor, who was chair during several years of the kitchen-and-bath project, said that “ABACUS is respected by the state” and that “things aren’t meant to last 13 years.” He also suggested that Badilla “sit with Jack. Find the data on the tiles. Research it. Go down that track.” In the meantime, he suggested that the tile issue be addressed by a replacement plan developed in collaboration with Chris Partridge, the director of maintenance and modernization.

The housing authority uses the state-run capital planning system, which lists the life expectancy of existing and proposed materials in construction projects. YourArlington reached out to Nagle to ask about the life expectancy of the tiles used in the kitchen and bathroom project. His response will be included in updated reporting.   

State authority depends on town funding

The state-run housing authority receives the bulk of its operating funding from resident rents and DHCD. It supplements its much-needed building repairs and upgrades – such as the window-replacement project - with substantial town funding.

“It looks like we’re going to get $2.5 million from the Town of Arlington American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. We’re also going to get $1.1 million from the Community Preservation Act (CPA)– all for the windows,” said Nagle during the meeting.

When the housing authority has submitted funding applications, the town has supported its extensive infrastructure needs. Since fiscal 2017, the authority has received more than $2.3 million from the CPA for preservation projects. It has received several million dollars from Community Development Block Grants for capital-improvement projects, such as boilers and roofs, as well as creating affordable housing.

Mostly, though, town funding has gone to support the existing infrastructure with limited housing added to the town’s low-income housing stock. This situation is experienced by housing authorities nationwide who are struggling to maintain their aging housing portfolio.

In its Arlington Housing Plan 2022 report, the Barrett Planning Group noted that “The Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) manages five public housing developments and administers rental assistance vouchers, but it has not actively pursued new housing development in a long time and lacks resources to manage the properties it already owns.”

Executive Director David J. Hedison, has been with the Chelmsford Housing Authority since 1988. He said that “the $5-billion backlog of work needed today in state public housing has no path to being addressed. $55 million a year [from DHCD] and $150 million of ARPA funds is like using a Dixie cup to remove water from a sinking cruise ship. We need a real plan to save over 40,000 units of housing.”

Communication issues between tenants, authority

Timely and accurate information from the housing authority to tenants continues to be a source of friction between the residents of some of the properties, the board and the authority management and staff.

Barrett’s “Implementation Plan” of the housing report recommended “support tenant advocacy and organizing efforts in affordable housing properties owned and managed by the AHA,” noting that “tenants raised concerns about property conditions and interactions with property managers.”

To address these issues, the report suggested that the “town invest in opportunities to provide resources for tenant organizing.”

As part of its ARPA-funding allocation, the AHA has requested more than $184,000 for resident support services, which in his application, Nagle said that position would "meet with residents and coordinate services for them where possible.” 

Representation of tenant voices is complicated by anemic or absent tenant-led associations at the properties. Two of the five tenant organizations – Chestnut and Cusack – rarely present to the board at its monthly meetings. Drake Village, a complex of more than 200 residents, has been without a formal tenant association since last year.

Connor said that “anybody could call Jack, but the presidents have a different status where you can feel free to pick up the phone and call Jack or Chris [Partridge] anytime.”

Hernandez replied, “Well, I really don’t feel that so much, but we can work on it.”  

Other business

The board added Juneteenth as a paid holiday to the authority’s calendar. The June 19 federal holiday commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African-Americans.

Nagle also announced that the successful SHERA program would be ending April 15. The Subsidized Housing Emergency Rental Assistance is a federal program providing emergency funding to renters in subsidized housing impacted by Covid-19.

“We have received more than $60,000 for residents in need,” said Nagle. Qualified owners of subsidized housing can apply for assistance on behalf of all their income-eligible residents with rental arrears for the periods between April 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. “We’re still applying for residents who need it,” he said.

The authority received additional Covid-testing kits through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, and was distributing them to authority residents. Nagle reminded residents that the town is “continuing to provide testing on Mondays at Town Hall.”

The annual meeting of the housing authority is scheduled for Wednesday, April 20, at 6:45 p.m., at which new officers will be elected, followed by the regular meeting at 7 p.m.

Feb. 23, 2022: Housing authority tackles projects, ongoing and planned

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