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North Adams Housing Agency Looks to Warm 'Frail Elderly'

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
07:13PM / Tuesday, January 29, 2013
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NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Housing Authority is looking to do something to keep its fragile elderly warm.

The public housing agency has been dunned with complaints from residents for the past year after requirements of a U.S. Housing and Urban Development energy loan led to the thermostats being locked to no more than 72 degrees.

The often elderly and disabled residents say the new energy-efficient changes aren't enough to counteract the colder temperatures and frequent drafts.

"We're looking into doing something for the frail elderly, above and beyond what we're doing for everybody else, we're looking into that," said Chairman James Canavan at Monday's meeting. "We do have frail elderly and that population will only grow."

The agency instituted new energy efficiencies — including insulation, lighting and ventilation upgrades and new heating systems for its 306 units — with the $3.2 million HUD loan. It's expected to reap about $7 million in savings over the next 20 years and free up some $700,000 for operations.

By state regulation, temperatures in rental housing must be no less than 68 degrees during the day and 64 degrees at night; the maximum is 78 degrees. The authority has had the heating systems tested and hasn't found a reading below the 68-degree minimum, but residents have petitioned elected officials over the matter. One woman wrote that her 94-year-old mother in Riverview Apartments "sits encased in an electric throw all day."

"It's simply that the heat capped at 72 degrees is not reasonable for our elderly population who are primarily sedentary and on medications that thin their blood," wrote Kathy Denault, who copied the letter to local, state and federal officials.

Executive Director Jennifer Hohn told the North Adams Transcript earlier this month that the authority would look into ventilation projects that could reduce the amount of outside air coming into the buildings and help keep the temperatures consistent.

Board member Marie Harpin said state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi was "working with Boston to see if we can get the minimums raised across the state."

Cariddi, of North Adams, said in an email that such regulation changes within Department of Public Health do not come "quickly."

"I will be following the process to bring to their attention the needs of citizens, who because they are on medication, require a higher standard of temperature," she said.

In other business, the board also reviewed a letter from HUD addressing the authority's "substandard management" score for the 2011 fiscal year. The authority received a 79 out of 100 in the Public Housing Assessment System, primarily based on its vacancy rate at that time, in the new benchmarks HUD instituted in mid-year.

"They changed the rules in the middle of the game," said Hohn.

Harpin was concerned whether the violations were being addressed properly. Hohn said it wasn't a matter of violations but rather how the authority was addressing weak areas pointed to in the scoring. The authority had been informed of the score last April and the matter had been discussed a number of times.

"They're now weighing heavily on vacancy," Hohn said. "If you don't have an occupancy of 98 percent your score goes down... it's affected everyone in the country."

Hohn said at the time she took over in 2010 there were 36 vacancies; now there are six. The agency's staff has been working very hard on getting vacant units ready for new occupants in a timely manner, she said. "They are doing a great job and I think it's important to note our financials were 100 percent."

"We're not in trouble here," said Canavan. "The rest of this report was glowingly positive ... We can always do better, but we're not a problem for HUD."

Board member Christopher Tremblay noted that none of them were around during that fiscal year. "This report predated any of us and our current administration," he said. "This has nothing to with the new board or our new executive director."

The board also heard a brief update on the Flood House — nothing's happening at the moment — and went into executive session to discuss contract language regarding the executive director.


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