Great Barrington Housing Authority's new Executive Director Vera Cartier plans to meet the challenges of her new role head-on
GREAT BARRINGTON — Norma Drumm rolls her eyes when asked to think about how long she's been dealing with mold in her Flag Rock Village subsidized apartment in Housatonic.
"Well, I've been here for 10 or 12 years," she says without adding much else. Drumm says she's had problems with black mold growing underneath her carpet, bathroom, windows and shades. The mold spreads to the walls and the ceilings.
"We've had to be very diligent about keeping the mold off," says Drumm who lives in the apartment with her daughter, Georgia, and uses bleach to keep the fungus at bay. "Some people here aren't very able-bodied — then what do they do? They can't do all this, they can't reach everything."
Most units in the town's housing authority properties do not have mold, residents say. For Drumm keeping up with black mold has been a regular part of her life, but she's hopeful relief is in sight. In May, the Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to hire Vera Cartier, an 18-year veteran of the housing sector, as new executive director for the housing authority.
In September, Cartier inspected Drumm's home, Drumm says, and the director has pledged to replace carpeting in the unit.
"I think it's finally being addressed and it's been a long time coming, but Vera seems to want to do the best she can," Drumm says. Cartier made an inspection of Drumm's apartment in September to review Drumm's grievances. "She says I need new carpet and at least it appeared like I'm going to get it. I understand these things take time."
In fact, there's a lot of hope pinned to Cartier for a better future for the local housing authority. The previous executive director, Barbara Heaphy, had an, at times, combative relationship with residents who expressed concern about an alleged lack of communication, long waiting lists and building maintenance. Heaphy resigned in January to become executive director of the Lenox Housing Authority and an interim executive director was hired. Also around this time, several members of the Housing Authority board quit, leaving the authority scrambling to keep up services.
"I don't have any problems on this; I don't know, maybe I'm really lucky," said Casey Mazeralle, who has lived at Flag Rock for 13 years. "It's decent enough for what it is and I think (the housing authority is) trying."
In her new position, Cartier is facing a litany of issues and needs among the housing authority's properties and communities. The biggest, she says, is obvious: Money. The state's quasi-public housing authorities derive most of their funding from U.S. Housing and Urban Development. That support has increased in Massachusetts by 0.8 percent, to $65 million statewide, from fiscal years 2013 to 2018.
"Unfortunately, there is not enough housing," says Cartier, noting that just about every housing authority in the state has a waiting list. Cartier says she was surprised to find that there were seven vacant Great Barrington Housing Authority units when she came on, but now they're almost all filled.
"We have one more, then we're full," she says. "It's frustrating for people to have to wait."
Other issues facing the housing authority are mold in some units, tenant relations, rebuilding community and replacing some roofs.
Cartier said, for the most part, housing overseen by the authority is in good shape.
"I need to listen to the people and address the problems or issues," she says. "I can't make everyone happy, but in the end, if you don't do something, there is going to be a problem."
The Great Barrington Housing Authority manages Flag Rock in Housatonic, and Brookside in Great Barrington. This year, the housing authority took on the role of managing Dewey Court in Sheffield, which has 30 units. All together, the subsidized living complexes for low-income earners, people with disabilities and the elderly provide 112 units. The waiting list to get into subsidized housing anywhere in the state can take years depending on a person's living situation, health, veteran status and need. For the most part the eight Flag Rock residents interviewed by the Berkshire Eagle in their homes say they enjoy living at the complex and haven't had many issues with housing maintenance or mold.
"I love this apartment. I've lived here over 15 years and it's been a good experience," said Melissa Cabaniol who lives at Flag Rock with her husband and daughter. "Once I had a problem with my faucet, but they were right over the next day to fix it — stuff like that has happened, but that's it."
Meanwhile, other residents like Drumm and Arianne Blanchard, who filed a lawsuit against the authority in 2016 over the alleged continued presence of mold in her home, struggle. Blanchard did not reply to a request for comment for this article and Cartier declined to discuss ongoing litigation. Blanchard's case is yet to be resolved.
On Monday, Cartier breathes deeply looking over the rooftops of the Flag Rock two-story senior living apartment complex.
"This is my favorite spot," she says standing on the second-floor mezzanine facing the mountain ridge with a view of the Housatonic River in the periphery. "I feel honored to work in such a beautiful place."
Before coming to Great Barrington as director, Cartier worked in housing authorities in South Carolina and Pittsfield, where she grew up. In 2005, Cartier left the public sector to manage properties in Pittsfield for a private company. She retired in 2016, but that didn't last.
"Physically, fiscally and mentally, retirement wasn't for me," she says.
Nurturing the positive aspects of public housing is something Cartier says she is seeking to do as executive director, in addition to addressing long standing issues such as building maintenance.
"I'm very hands-on in my style and visible on the property. I listen to everyone; that's important," she says. As we tour Flag Rock, a woman pushing a cart with a neatly bundled trash bag, waves and says hello to Cartier.
"That's a good way to do it," Cartier notes.
"Now that we've got our sidewalks smooth it's almost a pleasure — almost."
The woman was referring to one of many changes at Flag Rock that have taken place under Cartier. A $100,000 plan to refinish the village's sidewalks has been three-quarters completed. The rest of the job will be wrapped up in 2018, according to the housing authority's five-year capital plan. Other recent improvements at the facility include replacing propane tanks, improving plumbing, and replacing some windows.
In the coming years, the authority has plans to improve plumbing, make all entryways accessible for people with disabilities, do some bathroom and kitchen upgrades, and replace a roof.
Other changes Cartier has made include establishing a smoking area for residents. Prior to Cartier's administration, all housing authority properties were 100 percent smoke-free.
"Smokers, non-smokers, you have to keep them apart," she says showing off the smoking patio, a brick area with two chairs and a table surrounded by garden beds and overlooking the lake. A white line on the ground shows that the area is 25 feet back from any doorway in the complex, which is in compliance with state law. "You can't just say `no-smoking.' When I got here we ended that."
Cartier has also begun to organize community events — and invite all the residents of the three housing authority properties. The first event was a fall-themed get together in October with sweets and coffee. She's planning to hold similar events in November and December. At each event, Cartier says, she wants to offer residents a good time as well as helpful information on services such as Medicare sign-ups and management, banking, identity theft and more.
"It's important to be able to bring in things that the residents will be able to use and need," Cartier says.
Cartier says if she could ask the Legislature in Boston for one thing to help the state's housing authorities, it wouldn't take her any time to come up with an answer: "more housing."
"Every day brings new challenges," Cartier says, "and you need to meet them head on."
Kristin Palpini can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and @kristinpalpini on Twitter.
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