Falmouth Housing Authority Struggles To Keep Buildings Up To Code
Inspectors found missing or non-functional heat and smoke detectors at Tataket Apartments.
The government agency that runs the town’s low-income public housing was issued a cease and desist order this May for unpermitted repairs to its properties. An inspection also revealed multiple safety violations. But the Falmouth Housing Authority has been working to resolve the conflicts and resume work, according to town officials.
Two of Falmouth’s building and fire safety inspectors surveyed the housing authority’s properties in May and found open walls, an installed water heater, and exposed electrical wires—all unpermitted work, which the town then ordered the authority to stop.
The inspectors’ report also revealed myriad other problems, including uncleanliness, unusable appliances, and obstructed exits and entrances that were not in compliance with building, accessibility and fire codes. Several rooms at the authority’s Tataket Apartments, the brick housing complex next to the Teaticket Post Office, had missing or non-functional heat and smoke detectors, according to the report.
Inspectors found flood damage, open walls, or missing fresh air systems in apartments and oil-based paint and propane in closed storage areas and basements. The report stated that the common kitchen at the Harborview Apartments was unusable due to missing appliances and replaced sheetrock.
The inspection also covered the authority’s administrative offices, Sea Salt Apartments, Bayberry Apartments, and Mayflower Apartments. In total, the authority manages 348 housing units.
In an email dated Tuesday, August 1, Falmouth Building Commissioner Gary Street said his department must inspect properties like the housing authority’s every five years to ensure residents are safe and buildings up to code. He added that the housing authority has had code violations before, and the building department typically works with it on how to conduct code-compliant work. The housing authority responds to reports, however, and works to correct any issues that the department brings forward, he said.
“Most people are receptive to the help we offer,” Mr. Street wrote. “Life safety is our most critical concern however; all code correction issues are important, and we work to resolve them in a timely manner.”
Michael Coffey, the housing authority’s maintenance superintendent, reported to its board of commissioners on Monday, July 31, that the housing authority has since pulled permits for the plumbing and electrical work that was flagged in the report.
Board chairwoman Patricia A. Favulli asked why the housing authority was at fault. Mr. Coffey said that the housing authority does not have a licensed electrician or plumber on-site or on its staff.
Authority Executive Director Bobbi Richards said that the housing authority typically contracts with licensed electricians and plumbers within the community to do any needed work. Mr. Coffey said the housing authority’s in-house staff misunderstood what permits needed to be pulled for what kind of work.
“If we had a plumbing concern…we would open up the wall and repair it,” Mr. Coffey said. He added that the town said staff should have pulled a demo permit, but they never have over the years.
Ms. Favulli asked if the issues have been resolved. Mr. Coffey said no. He said work has been completed that staff did not pull permits for. For example, in the Tataket Apartments a few weeks ago, there were about 30 leaks in different pipes, and staff opened up the walls to make repairs. But as far as he understood, the town wants staff to pull a demo and plumbing permit and have a plumber make repairs.
“However, the concern is we do not have somebody who can pull the permits,” Mr. Coffey said. “Nor do we have a contractor who can pull the permit.”
This appeared to contradict Ms. Richards’s statement that the housing authority does contract with licensed electricians and plumbers, who are able to pull permits. Ms. Richards was not available in the days after the meeting to clarify the discrepancy.
Housing authority commissioner Michael Galasso, who develops affordable housing himself, wondered if there is a work-around so that housing authority staff do not have to bother pulling a permit whenever they need to “put a hole in the wall to look at a pipe” or other minor repairs.
“It sounds like a little bit too much, based upon the amount of work we have to do in our units,” Mr. Galasso said. “That just seems a little excessive.”
“I think the town is slapping us on the wrist for the years that have gone by without pulling any permits,” Mr. Coffey said.
“Well, that’s before you came aboard and before we’ve taken steps to correct it,” Mr. Galasso said.
Mr. Galasso suggested staff, and himself possibly, meet with the building inspectors to find a way to compromise so the housing authority can complete its work more quickly. Mr. Coffey said he has a good relationship with the inspectors, but they still want permits pulled on work being done.
Ms. Favulli, the chairwoman, said she met with the building inspector just after the report came out and found that part of the problem is that the housing authority has a history of not pulling permits when permits are required. Part of the issue also started with the fire department, when personnel would respond to calls and go into apartment units and find “negative situations,” in addition to unpermitted projects.
“We shouldn’t be circumventing the regulations,” Ms. Favulli said. “We’re trying to correct issues here. Let’s do it the right way.”
Ms. Favulli asked if a problem with some gas stoves had been resolved. Mr. Coffey said two gas stoves that did not comply with state regulations and that were a safety issue, because the gas would be on before the stove could be ignited, have been swapped out for code-compliant stoves.
Not forcing the Housing Authority to comply with current building codes is the start of a slippery slope. Although it's not quite the same situation, the problems resulting from "Mass and Cass" in Boston are a result of lax enforcement of existing laws and ordinances and only seems to get worse every day. Can't let that happen.
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