A certain heroic tenant down at Cahill Apartments who shall remain nameless, had long wondered about this white heating pipe in his closet. The covering didn’t look like modern fiberglass insulation. This insulating material was grey; it looked like asbestos, and its protective wrapping had gaps in it.
So he complained to the DEP (the State Department of Environmental Protection) An asbestos inspector came to the public housing project on Fruit Street,examined heating pipes in two apartments, and left materials describing the hazards of asbestos with the tenants.
I went down to Cahill and then went over to Forsander Apartments to follow up on a phone call. The complex looks fine from the road, with all the flowers and all, but toward the back, the place gets ugly in places.
I talked with a couple that shared this tiny apartment in the rear of Cahill. The walls outside their apartment are grey with mold, ditto for the porch. The area is in perpetual shade from the forest, which is owned by Smith College. Before Cahill, there was a skating rink there, which is oddly relevant to today’s drainage problems in the rear of the complex. The property line cuts right under the corner of building “X” and there is only about twelve feet of NHA property between the buildings and the forest, and no retaining wall.
“Marilyn” and “Sam” (not their real names) are both in their twenties. Marilyn is a student at Holyoke Community College.
They have been there for six years. The first sign that the apartment had its problems came right away. Sam tried to use the nearly forty year old oven and smoke came boiling out. He almost set the smoke alarms off in the building. His neighbors warned him: “Don’t use the stove, no matter what you do.” The surface units smoked too,and the hood over the stove didn’t work. He was at a loss as to what to do. “There was a stove there. Wasn’t it supposed to be okay to cook on it?”
“ The first time I tried to cook here,” said his wife, ” I tried frying some eggs. I noticed that the moisture was building up under the hood, and the paint was peeling on the hood. Flecks of paint in the pan. Ugh. I gave up. It is a bigger issue for him, not so much for me. I can adapt. I’m ok with using the microwave, but Sam likes to cook. “
Over the years he has purchased a portable oven, an electrical roaster,an electric frying pan, and a microwave. All the gear fills up their shelf space and the stove sits there, a place to hang towels on and shelf space for spices and a little turntable.
“I was upset with the apartment.” said his wife, “ I talked with my instructor at Holyoke Community College, and she called the Authority and talked with a woman in maintenance. The next day that woman in maintenance called me at home. She was furious.
“ Don’t ever talk to anyone about your apartment outside the Northampton Housing Authority again.” she said. “We were really afraid that we would be evicted if we complained. So we didn't. ”
The apartment is clean, but small. I looked at the closet piping; it had been replaced with fiberglass, but there was a suspicious-looking packing around heating pipes where they came up out of the floor. They both have asthma, and her asthma has gotten steadily worse in the years they have been there. There is mold in the apartment; The writer got up on the tub and looked at the ventilator in the bathroom. It was clogged with dust. A screwdriver and a little prying took off the face plate, revealing much more dust. It looked as if the vents had never been cleaned since the sixties. It also looked as if the tiny ventilator didn’t come close to meeting the current code requirements.
“For a long time,” said Sam, “We were afraid to be evicted. But now we feel like we are ready to talk to people and demand some action. As we have advanced in our education, we have discovered that we have rights. We can withhold our rent if the apartment does not meet code.”
I called DEP the next day and got a cautious acknowledgement that contact had been made with NHA and the problem, if there was a problem, was being discussed. “Have you talked with the Authority?” asked the DEP spokeswoman.
“Not yet.” I said,” I’m girding my loins.”
“What?” she giggled.
“Oh, you never heard that expression?” I asked. She hadn’t. Me and the Director of the Northampton Housing Authority go way back. We have our differences. I had already talked with Dave Adamson, NHA’s Director of Maintenance, but not the big boss. Dave was friendly and approachable and is not someone who sits behind a big desk and plays Mr. Important. He only frosted over when I asked him how come the authority hadn’t seen this problem coming and dealt with it a long time ago. He said I had to talk to the Executive Director, for an answer to that one.
Dave Adamson started with the NHA as a painter, and for someone who is in charge of a maintenance crew that services 612 housing units for families, the elderly, and people with special needs, he seems kind of underqualified. Oh, and blase. “Oh yeah, he said, viewing a rough section of flooring tile in Cahill Building “B”, “Yeah, that’s vinyl asbestos tile.”
“So what?”, seemed to be the subtext. OK, as long a vinyl asbestos tile is undisturbed, it is no problem. Its when the material gets friable, when its abraded or crumbles that the asbestos gets in the air, that people can get sick. The tiling is more than forty years old.
In Forsander some corridor tiling is starting to turn up its edges, in the community building the tiling is badly eroded and missing in spots. In the community room every heating pipe coming up from the basement has grey cement filling the gaps: cement that also looks like asbestos.
The news that Forsander also had asbestos didn’t surprise people up there. “Those boiler rooms out here are loaded with the stuff.” said Pete Cushing, former head of the tenant union up at Forsander. He talked about maintenance at the complex, and Dave Adamson.
“He doesn’t know plumbing, he doesn’t know electricity, he doesn’t know carpentry.” He said.
Pete went to a meeting of the Authority a couple of years ago and more or less let them have it in front of the commissioners about lousy maintenance. No response. A couple months later, however, manna of a sorts descended on Forsander. A flat screen TV and all these elegant chairs for the community room. Pete and others have told me its an old pattern. Scream and something will be done to make you happy.
This last Tuesday I and Jon Hite finally sat down and talked.
He’s tall, gangly, with a greying moustache. He lighted up a Marlboro and we talked.
“I have no evidence that there is friable (loose) asbestos in the heating system.” he said, but admits there is asbestos there and he was going to work with the DEP to wall off off the pipes in question. He had only talked with DEP on the phone. He said, based on that phone call, that the NHA will be going around and inspecting all of the closets at Cahill (and Forsander, I later learned). Both projects were built in the late sixties and are practically identical. He would replace the stove that the tenants I talked with were having trouble with; he would fix the wiring in their apartment. He told me that if they find friable asbestos, they“will follow the proper steps to have the asbestos removed by an approved asbestos removal contractor.” If there is no asbestos hazard, they will be boxing in all the pipes so that they will not be exposed to contact from tenant activities. I had five or six other questions, and he fielded each one. He said that the ventilators in the couple’s building had been cleaned two years ago (the tenants told me it hadn’t0. They had hired Cotton and were going to start dealing with the drainage problem in back of Cahill next week. No, he said, Dave Adamson, who earns about $41,000, had never had any job involving supervision before he came to NHA, and no, he had never given him any training in supervision. Dead silence. To help him out, I commented that he was a nice guy, anyway.
“No,” he said, after some thought, “ No, he’s not a nice guy.”
I was sitting there with my pencil poised to write, and I looked at the pencil, which was still hovering in mid-air. I wondered if he would say that to a Gazette reporter. I guess he wouldn't.