Residents concerned about residency of Northampton housing board

Hampshire County

Some Northampton residents want to see the city’s public housing board changed, but that will mean changing state law.

Under state law, only one member of a city’s housing board has to be an actual tenant of public housing, and some in Northampton want to see that changed. 

Recent concerns at Northampton’s Public Housing complexes, including one summer mandate to remove window AC units that were later rescinded, prompted the proposal. 

City Council President Ryan O’Donnell wants to change the city’s housing authority to include more tenant representation.

“I think a lot of them feel a little disconnected from the city in a way,” O’Donnell said. “Housing authorities are islands in a way. I get calls from people in public housing all of the time, and I’m limited in my power to help them.” 

Under Massachusetts law, four members of a city’s housing board are appointed by the mayor, and one by the governor. Currently, two of Northampton’s board are residents in public housing, but O’Donnell proposes petitioning to change state law, to allow the city’s public housing units to hold elections – adding six more residents to the board. 

Ella Smolenski of Florence, whose son lives in one of the city’s housing complexes, said she thinks the change is necessary.

“My son has medical issues,” Smolenski said. “You must also realize that some residents are afraid to speak up, they’re afraid to be targeted.”

Of the more than 2,000 living in public housing in the city, the residents are some of Northampton’s most vulnerable. Hundreds of children, the elderly, and more than 800 with disabilities. 

One member of the housing board expressed concerns at a public forum Wednesday night over the proposed election process, and conflicts of interest.

If the legislature does approve the changes, it could move other cities to follow suit. 

There will be another forum to hear from tenants in November.

O’Donnell said the state legislature would next be able to address the issue in January. 

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