PORTSMOUTH — Edith “Ginger” Duffy and Vonnie Nordby sat at a small table in the latter woman’s apartment at Quaker Manor/Quaker Estates, the public housing complex …
PORTSMOUTH — Edith “Ginger” Duffy and Vonnie Nordby sat at a small table in the latter woman’s apartment at Quaker Manor/Quaker Estates, the public housing complex that’s been their home for years. Both women are on a first-name basis with many of the elderly or disabled residents who live here, and they shared stories about all the colorful characters with whom they share space.
“This place is special to me,” said Duffy, whose father, Al Roche of ATR Construction, built the original Quaker Manor in the 1960s, and later constructed the first police station located just south on East Main Road. She moved in when her marriage fell apart after 15 years, when she was 65. She’s now 77.
“You meet all these personalities here, and they’re all so great,” said Norby, who moved here from Las Vegas when she was 63 to help her son and his wife after they had a baby. She’s now 71.
But over the past few years, Norby, Duffy and other tenants claim, their living conditions have rapidly deteriorated due to new on-site property management, which they said has been indifferent to their needs. One resident has had mold in her apartment for years, another unit was backed up with sewage, while other tenants have gone without heat for weeks and report their appliances are starting to break down, they said.
Their complaints often fall on deaf ears or the management office drags its feet, tenants said. Sometimes they get lucky and a problem gets fixed. (Duffy recalled the time Jim Seveney, the state senator who chairs the Portsmouth Housing Authority’s (PHA) Board of Commissioners, got her hot water back within hours. Nordby once complained about loud parties making life miserable for the tenants, and Police Chief Brian Peters came to her rescue.)
But those are the exceptions to the rule, said the two women, who are frustrated, angry and feel tenants are being neglected.
“This place … If there’s a problem, they Mickey Mouse it, and we’re the people who are suffering,” Duffy said.
The public housing complex consists of two different sections:
• Quaker Manor is the original property acquired by the Portsmouth Housing Authority in 1969 and developed as public housing, operating under HUD regulation as subsidized elderly/disabled housing. It includes five separate buildings for a total of 40 units/apartments, and the central office building.
• Quaker Estates, adjacent to and west of Quaker Manor, was acquired by the R.I. Housing Corp. (later Coastal Housing Corp.) in 2001 and developed into four buildings housing a total of 33 units/apartments. Each of these buildings are separately incorporated. Quaker Estates shares the use of the central office.
The problems apparently began about four years ago, when Quaker Manor ownership and management status changed when it was transferred to a newly formed entity called Quaker Manor LLC. The transfer was made to facilitate application for a HUD program called “Rental Assistance Demonstration” (RAD) for Quaker Manor, which opened the door to private local funding. (It also entailed changing the status of Quaker Manor to senior, low-income housing, to private Section 8 subsidized housing, with no age limits.)
“Quaker Manor was approaching 45 years of age, and in need of much maintenance, repair and update,” stated the PHA’s annual report for 2020 (see related story). “With the subsequent HUD approval as a RAD project, in October 2017 Quaker Manor borrowed $1.22 (million) in commercial loans to fund the needed work.”
The refurbishments are complete, but there were problems with the improvements, according to Seveney. For example, the wrong heating units were installed, and other renovations didn’t meet residents’ expectations, he said. In addition, new people were brought in to operate the main office, and they haven’t pleased many tenants.
“Some of the stuff is legitimate and should be, and can be, fixed,” Seveney said.
At one point, HUD issued a notice of violation to Coastal for non-compliance with financial reporting requirements. Seveney said Coastal was required to find a suitable replacement management agent, and Phoenix Property Management took over Quaker Manor/Estates on Jan. 1, 2021.
“I think the place is having trouble with maintenance and upkeep and stuff,” Seveney said. “As best as I can tell, Phoenix has tried to fix some of the problems that arose since Coastal Housing, which is for all extensive purposes defunct. This hasn’t been a well-run operation and Phoenix has been trying to get their arms around it, but this takes time.”
Complaints aired at meeting
Tenants aired their grievances to the PHA’s Board of Commissioners during a Dec. 8 meeting at Town Hall.
Nordby said life at the complex really hasn’t been the same since the former manager, Doris Shaw, quit six years ago after running the property with an iron grip for 12 years. Although Shaw could be tough, everyone respected the job she did, Nordby said.
“We had parties, we had barbecues, we had everything going on as a community,” she said. “It was a good community. We were happy, we were socializing with each other and the grounds we all kept. Then it all stopped. We have no maintenance men at all, and we used to have two full-time ones.”
Matthew Bettencourt, who has lived at Quaker Manor close to nine years, agreed. The people who took over from Shaw haven’t done a good job, and he’s had several run-ins with them over parking issues, maintenance and more, he said.
Duffy said Phoenix Management isn’t the problem, but rather the individual(s) managing the main office. One of biggest concerns, which was shared by other tenants, is the lack of generators. The only one at Quaker Manor, she said, serves the office and has been off for four weeks. The last time it was on was Nov. 17, which triggered an alarm that went off for hours, she said.
“Nobody came to shut off the alarm in the office; I don’t know what it was about,” she said.
Generators are critical to the needs of tenants, Duffy said. “We have people on oxygen. We have people who need this. This is important; this is our health. We need the generator hookup.”
Residents also complained about the dumpsters, which they said can be difficult to open for elderly tenants or those with disabilities. In addition, the large outdoor recycling container is located in a separate section far away from man units.
“This is pure ice during the winter, and they’re expecting us to do it; this is supposed to be for elderly and disabled people,” Nordby said in a separate interview. In the past, workers used to come to the individual units, take the trash bins, put them on a trailer and empty them in the dumpsters, she said.
“We’re concerned about how we’re being treated. We used to have three people working in the office and two maintenance men. Now we’re down to one office person and no maintenance man,” she said.
Sharlene Stoker-Patton, the daughter of Ronnie Stoker, who lives at Quaker Estates, said her mother has been dealing with mold issues, although Phoenix has somewhat rectified it with a “Band-Aid” solution. She also claimed her mother’s HUD recertification has not been completed, even though all the necessary papers were submitted.
“There are still issues in her house that are not being taken care of,” Stoker-Patton said. “I just ask that somebody really take a good look into the property management team that’s there now.”
Accusations get personal
At several times during the meeting, Seveney asked tenants to temper their charges against specific individuals, at least one of whom was in the room and was called out directly by a resident.
“This is a public meeting; please be measured in your accusations. Let’s leave the disparaging remarks against any person aside,” said Seveney, who invited tenants to write or e-mail the board with any accusations against specific individuals.
Charles Levesque, the board’s legal counsel, agreed. “This violates both the letter and intent of the open meetings law to discuss personnel issues” in this manner, he said. (The Portsmouth Times, likewise, is not identifying specific management personnel whom tenants have criticized.)
At the conclusion of the meeting, Seveney promised tenants that the board will do everything it can to address their complaints.
“We’ll interact with HUD and Phoenix Housing. We’re going to look into every one of these concerns. You may not appreciate the answer, but we’ll get you an answer,” he said.
On Tuesday, Seveney said he’s asked Michael Packard, the principal for Phoenix Housing, to respond to the complaints. Some could be addressed rather easily, he said, such as the problem with the dumpsters. “There’s still some work to be done, but one of the things I’m hopeful about is that Phoenix Housing seems to think the place is salvageable. For a while, we were concerned that it might not be.”
Other issues may be more difficult to address, however.
“Some of the other stuff is just … personal, between who runs the place and some of the residents,” Seveney said. “There’s a long history with the staff there and there are a few people who don’t like them.”
The PHA board, which he said was re-established in part to address the problems at the housing complex, has the “legal authority to do everything up to subpoena somebody.” The problem is, the Authority has no money. “We have no budget and we’re not an entity of the town.”
Duffy said she was not satisfied with the Dec. 8 meeting. “We got no answers. We feel the town of Portsmouth isn’t going to do anything for us,” she said, noting her next move may be to write to the Rhode Island attorney general, or U.S. Sen. Jack Reed. “Something has to be done.”
At the Dec. 8 meeting, Stoker-Patton said it was a simple matter of how people should be treated, especially the elderly, those with disabilities, or veterans making up the majority of residents at Quaker Manor/Estates.
“We’re all going to be there someday,” she said.