State officials are looking into complaints of improper living and working conditions at public housing complexes run by the Worcester Housing Authority.
The office of the Massachusetts auditor has begun a preliminary inquiry into living standards for the housing authority’s nearly 3,000 apartments. Auditor Diana DiZoglio’s office told GBH News that, depending on the findings of that review, the auditor could investigate further and look into “deficiencies, a lack of oversight or a need for greater accountability.”
Separately, the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards confirmed that it is investigating possible safety and health hazards for employees of the housing authority for the second time in the past six months.
The reviews come as many residents of Worcester public housing complexes have complained to GBH News about sewage backing up in basements, inadequate heating, roach infestations, discolored tap water and exposure to the cancer-causing building material asbestos, among other problems.
Current and former employees of the housing authority also told GBH News that management forces workers to regularly handle asbestos and rodent and insect poison without providing them proper protective equipment.
Employees and tenants are afraid to speak up about the conditions. They told GBH News that when they or others have complained to the housing authority, the agency retaliated, suspending workers without pay and threatening to evict residents.
“It’s like pulling teeth,” said Jamie McPherson, who has lived at the Mayside Apartments public housing complex for 10 years. “It’s tough to get the word out there. And when they do come and look at something, there’s always some excuse not to fix it.”
Worcester Housing Authority CEO Alex Corrales declined multiple requests for an interview. But in an email, a spokesperson said many of the public housing units are more than 70 years old and require constant repairs. Corrales has plans to demolish some of the housing complexes and build new ones.
The housing authority also disputed that it retaliates against residents, arguing it tries to avoid evicting people. And it denied claims that basements have sewage overflows, residents are being exposed to asbestos and rodent and insect poison and that there is inadequate heating and discolored tap water.
“Our property management and maintenance staff does an excellent job responding to residents’ concerns and addressing problems as they arise to ensure we are providing safe living conditions for our residents,” the housing authority said in a statement.
Worcester City Manager Eric Batista deferred to the housing authority for a comment. GBH News could not reach Mayor Joseph Petty ahead of publication.
Complaints about heat and drinking water
Residents’ complaints about government-subsidized public housing are not unique to Worcester. Across the country, public housing complexes have been deteriorating due to decades of underfunding.
According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there’s a backlog of deferred maintenance worth more than $70 billion.
Worcester public housing tenants note that conditions aren’t poor in all apartments and some public housing buildings are in better shape than others. Still, many residents say the problems they’re dealing with are inexcusable.
GBH News spoke to nearly two dozen tenants, most of whom declined to use their full name because they fear retaliation from the housing authority. They noted that the authority routinely sends out letters threatening them with “lease enforcement,” which residents say they interpret as eviction proceedings. The housing authority told GBH News lease enforcement doesn’t mean an eviction.
One tenant nicknamed Joy lives in Great Brook Valley Gardens — Worcester’s largest public housing community with more than a dozen barracks-style buildings — and said she often sees yellow, brown water coming out of her taps. She spends close to $100 a month on bottled water for her family.
“When that happens, I won’t bathe the kids and I’ll just wipe them down,” added Jen, another Great Brook Valley Gardens tenant. “I don’t know what’s inside of the water.”
Residents also were concerned about exposure to asbestos, which if disturbed, can release small fibers into the air that cause cancer and damage people’s lungs. Christine, a tenant at Mayside Apartments for about 10 years, noted she can see asbestos under her floors, which started cracking and lifting last year. She’s afraid it’s affecting her health.
“When I first moved here and during the first few years living here, I never had to visit the emergency room. I managed my asthma and my [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease],” Christine said. “When the thing with the asbestos happened, it seemed like my health started deteriorating. … I have to be on oxygen. I have to have a nurse come once or twice a week.”
The housing authority said that although asbestos still exists in some of its buildings, it has “protocols in place on safely removing any friable asbestos when it is discovered through a licensed abatement removal company.”
Many residents say inadequate heating is also a regular problem, forcing them to use their ovens and stoves to stay warm. State law mandates landlords have to provide sufficient heat between Sept. 15 and May 31. However Nee, who lives at Lakeside Apartments, says her heater hasn’t worked for much of this winter. During a tour of her apartment, she noted that workers with the Worcester Housing Authority will come to fix the issue, but the heater often conks back out.
“It hasn’t been pleasant to be waking up at 4 o’clock in the morning because you’re cold,” Nee said. “You have kids and they’re complaining they’re cold, and I can’t do anything about it.”
‘Nowhere else to go’
Given Massachusetts’ affordable housing shortage and overwhelmed shelter system, Worcester public housing tenants stress that they’re grateful to have a home they don’t have to spend more than 35% of their income on. They add that they would like to leave public housing, but many of them are on fixed incomes and can’t afford record-high rents in the Worcester area.
“We’re being neglected,” Joy said. “But we have nowhere else to go.”
Several current and former employees of the Worcester Housing Authority said they’re doing the best they can to respond to problems with apartments. Dale Mendes recently quit as a plumber for the housing authority because he said he was tired of management wanting him to do his job as quickly and cheaply as possible.
For example, Mendes said there have been times when raw sewage drips into the basements of some buildings. But instead of fixing the leak in the sewage pipes, Mendes said management would let the sewage accumulate and contract a company to suck it up every once in a while.
“Every apartment would smell like sewer,” Mendes said. “It just emanated up.”
The Worcester Housing Authority disputed that it lets sewage sit in basements and claimed one of the unions representing its employees, SEIU Local 888, is spreading misinformation about working and living conditions.
SEIU Local 888 officials deny that claim and say they’re trying to protect workers and residents. Union leaders said they recently met with Gov. Maura Healey and officials from the state auditor’s office and the office of Attorney General Andrea Campbell. The union told GBH News that Campbell’s office said they would investigate the matter.
In an email, a spokesperson for the attorney general said her office does not comment on, confirm or deny investigations. Gov. Healey’s office deferred comment.
The Executive Office of Housing and Livable Communities said it conducted an inspection in August last year of a sample of Worcester public housing units. It found the general conditions were acceptable and there were no health and safety concerns.
A spokesperson for the Department of Labor Standards said it previously investigated working conditions for housing authority employees and found 11 problems, including not properly protecting workers from asbestos. The spokesperson said the housing authority has since corrected those specific issues but added the labor standards department has opened another investigation.
The state auditor’s office also continues its review.