Great Barrington Housing Authority gets a fresh start with new executive director, board members

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GREAT BARRINGTON — After a rocky year of resignations and empty board seats, conflict and complaints by tenants, the Great Barrington Housing Authority now has three new members to fill the interim until the May election.

The town Select Board made the appointments Oct. 30 after an endorsement by Vera Cartier, the authority's new executive director.

The board voted unanimously to appoint Karen Smith, Jackie Sinico and Jim Mercer, filling three of five seats. All three said they would also run for term seats in the May election.

Another seat must be state-appointed, since the authority operates under the aegis of the state rather than the town, and another must be filled by a tenant from a tenant's association.

That tenant seat, however, is hung up until a tenant's association is formed, something that will require the authority to contact the state Department of Housing and Community Development and find a mechanism for doing that.

According to Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, this mechanism is unclear since DHCD is still reviewing regulations that were supposed to be released last spring.

Select Board chairman Sean Stanton said he hoped the authority would "strongly advocate for a tenant's association," and that state representatives might need to be contacted to push this along.

After former Executive Director Barbara Heaphy left last year to take a job with the Lenox Housing Authority, board members began to dwindle until there were none left.

"We have not had a board for the past 2 1/2 weeks," Cartier. "It put the Housing Authority in an unusual and precarious position."

Cartier said seven people, including a tenant, had applied for board positions to oversee the federally funded low-income housing, leaving plenty of options for both the remaining positions.

It shouldn't be too difficult. Several others expressed interest, including Flag Rock tenant Heidi Gruenwald.

The authority oversees reduced-rate housing at Flag Rock Village in Housatonic, Brookside Manor in Great Barrington and Dewey Court in Sheffield.

At the meeting, candidates spoke frankly about, or hinted at, long-standing tension and problems between the board and tenants of Flag Rock.

Sinico, who lives in Flag Rock's senior housing said this was her third try for a board seat.

"The last time, there were many resident complaints," she said, adding that previously, residents were "shunned and being treated very poorly by the director and board."

She said that with this "clean sweep of the board," and Cartier's arrival, things are already better.

"[Cartier's] not afraid to follow policy and procedures," Sinico said. "She has gotten no-trespassing orders on people who are giving Flag Rock a bad name. She's a breath of fresh air."

She said residents have been socializing and seeing positive changes after difficult times.

Over the years, and very recently, some tenants have complained about housing at Flag Rock that remained vacant despite a waiting list, health-compromising mold problems, maintenance and safety issues.

"They would block you every way you turned," said Marlene Kowlowski, a Flag Rock resident, of the previous board. "Vera's already making changes."

Heather Bellow can be reached at 413-329-6871

hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or @BE_hbellow
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