Mike Kirby: “The Meadowbrook Chronicles Part One”

We are pleased to reprint the latest article by Mike Kirby, former city councilor. You can also find it on his blog, Kirby on the Loose. The Meadowbrook story has many important facets. Of particular interest to us are the consequences that can follow from building homes near wetlands.

The Meadowbrook Chronicles Part One

For some time, a number of tenants and former tenants of Meadowbrook have been after me to write something about the housing complex and the agency that runs it. As you may remember, a 2004 agreement preserved the development as affordable. Brokered by the Mayor, this deal sold the development to the Boston-based nonprofit, Preservation of Affordable Housing, LLC (POAH). I was given a couple hundred pages from their tenant union archives, and bundles of documents relating to the complex. The stories in this paperwork were disturbing and depressing…the 2005 flood of sewage that forced the evacuation of many residents, the tenant union folding under attack, and complaints about living conditions, drug dealing and other matters falling on seemingly deaf ears.

Still, the complex looked pretty good when I drove through it this spring. The grounds were clean, the buildings were sparkling, and the lawns were trimmed and free of debris. It looked to be a model of what affordable housing ought to be, especially if contrasted to Hampshire Heights just down the road. But there were a few jarring notes: the two late model Jaguars, a new BMW with out of state plates hiding under a car cover and the brand-new white Escalade in the parking lot. There were, as I understood it, income limits for households $38,700, for example, for a three person family. Who were these deep-pocketed people?

So I said to myself, get out of the car and check the place out. Talk to the people. See what is going on. So I dummied up this little survey on living conditions (do you like it here? do you hate it here? etc) and set out to see if POAH was getting its act together. Maybe its troubles were history. I told a friend that I was going to do enough surveys until I could see a trend.

I am discovering that there are many Meadowbrooks. There is the right side of the tracks and the wrong side of the tracks. Good buildings and bad buildings, good floors and bad floors. I started canvassing in the area where the garden-style duplexes are located. These are the most sought after in Meadowbrook because the apartments are larger, and the duplexes have their own lawns and more space for children to play. I talk to a couple of people by the bus shelter. One hasn’t got time to talk, the next gave me a real earful. “The good staff is all gone,: she said. “I don’t like it here, one bit.”

“Is there a tenant union?”

“Are you kidding? There used to be, but it’s dead.”

Then I start to go door to door. The first building I walked by without knocking. I know who lives there. At a stormy community meeting in 2006, Timothy C. Cheeks was elected President of the Save Our Homes Tenants Association, ending the tenure of Sherri Long. Sherri, who has worked in real estate in the Boston area, was “the squeaky wheel” who spoke up for tenants in city hall and in Boston: hammering POAH staff with a relentless barrage of emails about living conditions there.

Cheeks shares the same date of birth with the Timothy Cheeks, who, in 1990, was convicted of kidnapping his estranged wife and was acquitted of attempted murder. I think it’s the same guy. He was sentenced to 8 to 10 years in jail. He was part of the flood of new people that came into Meadowbrook from the Springfield area during the tenure of Andrell Yarbrough, a young woman from Springfield who was promoted from a clerical position to manage the complex in January of 2005, and was fired or quit in January of this year. POAH says she left of her own accord. This woman who worked for the management office during her tenure told me that another woman had been on the waiting list for this apartment for some time, but Andrell put Cheeks in the apartment. Today, there doesn’t seem to be a tenant union. What happened? More research is being done by Kirbyontheloose staff. A so-called CORI check is supposed to be made to keep offenders like Cheeks out, but neither POAH, the Northampton Housing Authority, or City Hall seemed to have been gung ho about using CORI.

Across the way, Building 16 looked good from the outside; an old green Ford Escort with handicapped plates sat outside. The older man that answered the door seemed to be pleased to see me, for some reason.

“You want to find out what life is like here?” he said. “Oh boy. Just a minute.”

His face was familiar. He took off the chain on the door and disappeared. He wanted to talk to his wife. A few minutes later he reappeared, and ushered me in. Inside it was dark, and the living room was jammed with orthopedic stuff. I met his wife Lisa, who was confined to her bed. His health was not too good either. John had chronic pain and respiratory problems.

Then I remembered I had met John one day up at the Valley Health pharmacy…

A good sense of humor. He had worked many years at Miss Flo’s as a cook. The couple had lived here for twelve years. The last three or four years had not been happy ones. Lisa’s mother had caught her walker in holes in the floor, fell twice, and been hospitalized ever since. They wanted to bring her home from the nursing facility, but couldn’t, the apartment being in the shape it was.

They have been in a protracted legal battle with Meadowbrook ever since, had a lawyer, were withholding rent, and had been inspected by the Board of Health, who served POAH with an order to correct violations of the state sanitary code in February. It was a loud bark, but there was no bite from the city, who could have imposed daily fines, but didn’t. Ernest Mathieu, the Director of Public Health, has since left city employment.

John gave me a guided tour of the apartment. They were living downstairs now. Their sons had moved out, and her mom was in a nursing home. Ten minutes looking around was enough for me. There were horrors everywhere. and anyone could see that management had never done anything meaningful to that apartment. It needed a gut rehab. Evidently they had completely fixed over the apartment next door, and there were no mold problems there.

The cabinets in the kitchen were 1973. They showed me the holes in the floor the carpeting coming up. This was the original, 1973 carpeting. The mold in that apartment was so bad that my asthma kicked up and I had to use my Isuprel inhaler after I got out. The mold was so bad it was crumbling the cement in the floors, which had turned into powder. The entry points for the mold seemed to be the piping chases in the bathroom and kitchen.

kitchen shot

One of the upstairs windows had been leaking so long that the cement sill was crumbling.

window sill

The next day I called MassHousing in Boston, and sent them the city’s inspection report and my pictures, and a couple days later my wife and I went to California for a couple weeks. Bernie Horan at Mass Housing was not pleased that a February warning from the Board of Health was still unresponded to in April. He said that their regional inspector would handle it.

Two weeks ago I went by and learned that they had been moved out. Last night I found them living in building two. They had gone from Meadowbrook hell to Meadowbrook heaven in one giant step. On April 28th, they had been moved into a spotless almost elegant three bedroom apartment.

In the meantime Mom had been brought home, all their collectibles were in glass cabinets, the modern kitchen was set up for a handicapped person, and the sons were visiting that night. They were very happy. On June 2nd they had been to court, where a mediator wiped out arrearages, awarded them four months rent and made management write a apology letter for a cutting remark that their manager made during inspection. “It was a f**k you apology,” said John. “You know, f**k you for taking things the wrong way.” He laughed.

“I would like to take this opportunity” said James Donovan in his letter, ” to express my regret and apologize for the fact that the words used to describe the condition of the apartment apparently were taken out of context and perceived to be insensitive or a judgement on your character.”

Today, six weeks later, no work has been done on their old apartment to bring it up to code and rent it again. Four apartments in building 4 have been vacant now since the 2005 sewer flood, and there are other vacant apartments in building two.

I continued my survey. Two doors up (see map) the bathroom in one apartment had failed a Section 8 inspection because of mold. The people had ants and mold and dampness. The building is sited right up against a cliff, and the back wall of their building is in perpetual shade from the rock wall and the overhanging trees.

Every year MassHousing in Boston reviews the performance of POAH. They come out from Boston, look at the books, and inspect a sampling of apartments to see if they are up to standards. Meadowbrook is a 252 unit affordable complex owned by and managed by a for profit subsidiary called Preservation Housing Management, LLC. out of Kansas City, Mo. In the 2005 review MassHousing said that, that the corporation accounts receivable was being in “crisis”. “Fully 46% – $99,597.57 – of the actual rent from the rent rolls are delinquent for 30 days or more.” They commented that the “severe delinquency of the accounts receivable (was) unacceptable. If this level of delinquency were to continue, it would certainly affect the financial viability of the property adversely.” The average time that it took management to clean and fix up vacant units, was on the average ninety days. A year later, the company still had a problem. There was $64,477 in receivables over 60 days. Rent receivables were not being tracked and collected successfully. Management said that many of the delinquent accounts were inherited from the previous owner, and the courts here were “pro-tenant”. 50 court-ordered repayment plans have been ordered by the courts.

The current report, dated January 9, 2008, shows that accounts receivable problem now totals $95,767. From January to November 2007, the complex had a vacancy rate of 13.4%, which translates to an average of about 33 badly needed affordable apartments going vacant. “Notwithstanding management’s difficulty with the local court system that purportedly favors tenants, vacancy is very high as compared with similar properties in the area.” In November of 2007 management was able to wipe overdue payables off their books with a real estate tax rebate. The MassHousing auditor commented that management needed a plan to keep current without “extraordinary revenue”.

Why all the vacant apartments? Why the extraordinary turnover in managerial and maintenance staff during the last three years? The position of facility manager has been vacant since Andrell Yarbrough resigned in January of 2008 and a recently hired regional person, who is responsible for six projects in New England, five in Rhode Island and Meadowbrook, is up here several days a week, trying to cover. Why has POAH, greeted with celebratory trumpets by the Mayor, headed up by Amy Anthony, former State Secretary of Housing and Development, failed to deliver on their promise to keep the facility safe, well-managed and affordable? It is clear to me that the management company is cash-starved. There was once after-hours staff and security; now there is no management presence after normal business hours.

Maybe, as Sherri Long, formerly President of the Tenants Union said to me, “We were all sold a bill of goods.”

There really was a meadow once, and a brook in Meadowbrook. The brook remains, although I think it is polluted now, All the well-drained good land in this area of Florence was built up in the sixties: the network of streets with well-kept houses with big back yards stopped at the edge of the steep bluff that bordered about 30 acres of bottom land off Bridge Road and east of Straw Avenue. In the 70s, before wetland regulations were in force, people developed land like this; junky stuff with swamps, old dumps, and land with severe access problems.

The developers built 255 units of affordable apartments there. They crammed them in everywhere they could, pushing them up into the bluffs, and close to the creek and wetlands. No backyards to speak of. One third of the buildings were built within 50 feet of the wetlands, 63% of the buildings are within the customary 100 feet of wetlands.

None of the buildings have cellars under their apartments. If they have cellars, there are people living in them. The cellar floors in the basement apartments in Buildings #4 and #2 are lower than the surrounding swamp. Some slabs have cracks in them. People have been flooded out. No moisture-proof barriers between the surrounding earth and the foundations. Moisture and mold percolate up into people’s apartments via the chases that hold utilities. If you wonder why low-income children are afflicted with a whole host of respiratory diseases, you have to look no further than the children of the floor level and basement apartments of Meadowbrook. And many of the buildings have forest on one or two sides.

Cellars are a wonderful thing; you’re away from the groundwater and dampness. Our first big purchase after we bought our house in 1983 was a top-of-line Sears submersible pump. For twenty-five years it has been working without human supervision. The float goes up, it goes on, the float falls, it shuts off. Whoosh-whoosh in the cellar, all is right with the world.

Over in Amherst, an equivalent project with equivalent problems was Puffton Village. It was during that 1973/74 period that Northampton’s stock of affordable housing expanded dramatically, with Hampton Gardens, River-Run Apartments, and Meadowbrook going in about the same timespan. Under prior management during the eighties and nineties, management was tough and razor-sharp, and the complex was relatively quiet. The woman who managed the place was on the ball, but seeing the handwriting on the wall, she left before POAH took control.. The twenty-five year bonds and FHA agreements that built these complexes all over America were expiring, and the owners were freed up from the agreements to keep them affordable. Harold Grinspoon of Springfield bought Meadowbrook. Mr. Grinspoon is not a nice man. The Gazette always refers to him as a “philanthropist”. Aspen Management manages more than 25,000 apartments nationwide. The Harold Grinspoon network of charities generates terrific PR. Google him, and I only found one critical notice in twelve or so pages. Here it is, part of a speech delivered by Emma Morgan in 2003, then President of the tenants union.

I think he had a plan in
mind when he bought Meadowbrook in 2001. He didn’t want to manage Meadowbrook and provide safe and sanitary housing to deserving people. He wanted to make a lot of money quickly. He wanted, like speculators everywhere, to get in and get out quickly. He knew that Northampton was a liberal place and prided itself on its commitment to affordable housing. So he bought the development for $9 million, retired the bonds, and announced that he was taking the facility up to market rate, or as the theorists love to say, its “highest and best use”. The first round of negotiations produced an agreement so expensive that HUD backed out. For awhile Grinspoon wanted $23 million for Meadowbrook. After protracted negotiations with the Mayor, in the winter of 2004, he agreed to sell the complex to a relatively new organization, POAH. Tenants celebrated, Sherri Long helped plan a ribbon-cutting party, everyone was happy. The Meadowbrook Tenants Organization looked forward to working with POAH, based in Boston. In a collaborative venture with the city and the Northampton Housing Authority, Section 8 certificates would be assigned to the new development.

Next in the Meadowbrook Chronicles: Looking for Harold Grinspoon

See also:

City of Northampton, Memo from Mayor Clare Higgins to City Councilors, “FY 2009 Capital Improvements Program Recommendations” (12/4/08)
Bridge Street School – Detention Basin/Sewer Tie-in – $22,000
Repairing the three dry wells at Bridge Street School was ranked as the [Northampton Public Schools’] second highest priority. The wells are filled with silt and the ground water backs up into the building. The DPW has cleaned the wells but the problem still exists due to the lack of slope and the deteriorated condition of the wells.

Northampton Redoubt: Doug Kohl reduces “footprint” of subdivision proposal due to the discovery of vernal pools in the North Street area wetlands
When I asked about the possibility of basements flooding in the future due to their proximity to the wetlands he indicated that some of the units would have basements provided they can be “drained to daylight.” Others would be constructed on concrete slabs. He also noted that most of the units would have one garage bay located within the perimeter of the buildings on the first floor, reducing the need for surface parking by one space for each of these units. It remains unclear to me how large construction equipment can operate very close to wetlands without harming them. It appears some of the units would be located within twenty feet of the wetlands.

Northampton’s Flood and Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan: Wetlands Buffers of 100 Feet Are an Effective Flood Mitigation Strategy and Should Be Consistently Enforced (emphasis added)

Flooding is already affecting Northampton’s built-up areas during major storms. Weakening wetlands buffer zone requirements downtown will make this worse

EPA: Wetlands and Flood Protection
Wetlands within and downstream of urban areas are particularly valuable, counteracting the greatly increased rate and volume of surface-water runoff from pavement and buildings…

Gazette: “Council adopts wetlands ordinance”
At-large City Councilor James M. Dostal proposed an amendment Thursday that called for increasing the 10 feet no-encroachment zones in urban residential districts to 50 feet because of serious concerns about homes flooding, saying “We shouldn’t be building there…”

Adam Cohen, of North Street and an organizer of the North Street Neighborhood Association said he believes a 50-foot no-[en]croachment zone would be better for the city’s urban residential districts. That, he said, represents “consumer protection for homeowners.”

The Republican: “Wetlands ordinance approved”
The North Street Neighborhood Association, which has expressed concern about a proposed project by developer Douglas A. Kohl, previously presented the council a report it commissioned by Hyla Ecological Services Inc. of Concord, recommending a minimum buffer of 50 feet between wetlands and development to guard against flooding…

At-Large Councilor James M. Dostal, who opposed the ordinance along with Ward 7 Councilor Raymond W. LaBarge, said he was concerned about flooded basements and people being flooded out in concentrated development areas near downtown.