Growing frustrations over living conditions and what they described as poor communication on the part of management drove a group of sign-carrying Holland Towers residents to stage a protest Monday outside their building.
Their messages ranged from concerns about communication with the Meadville Housing Authority officials who operate the facility to bedbugs.
“Bug infested building — 1 year,” one sign said. “This isn’t a day-care facility,” another read. Others asked one-word questions: “Safe?” “Sanitary?” “Decent?”
“Respect is a 2 way street,” another sign proclaimed.
A rotating group of participants maintained a presence of about 10 protesters from before noon until late afternoon and timed their picketing to coincide with the monthly meeting of the Housing Authority, which took place inside the Holland Towers community room at 2 p.m.
A few feet from the entrance to the meeting, the building’s main doors displayed an Aug. 31 letter from the Housing Authority.
“Due to the infestation, it was recommended by our exterminators that all chairs in the lobby need to be placed in storage until further notice,” the letter told residents in a large, all-caps font. “Do not under any circumstances bring substitute chairs into the lobby or they will be removed as well.”
Elsewhere in the building, flyers posted to various walls offered additional bedbug-related messages.
On the seventh floor, across from the elevator doors and just past three abandoned shopping carts from area grocery stores, a flyer told residents, “To prevent the spread of bedbugs/roaches, please do not put items on benches or in lobbies for others to take.”
A similar sign hung in the main floor lobby, not far from the flatscreen TV that residents said hasn’t been operable for months. Where residents once gathered to watch the news or wrestling, now the floor is bare, the couches having been removed. Despite what residents described as management efforts to eradicate bedbugs that have stretched on and off for about a year, the biting insects persist while amenities like the TV, couches and tables in other common areas have been lost.
Other items in a lengthy catalog of grievances included washing machines that remain not repaired — multiple residents stated that the 132-unit building has had only two working washing machines in recent weeks — and elevators that frequently malfunction.
While protesters carried signs along Water Street, a different but seemingly related conflict occupied much of the monthly Housing Authority meeting taking place about 100 yards away in the complex’s community room.
The conflict involves upcoming elections for the Holland Towers Resident Council. An elected board of residents, such councils are typically in charge of organizing educational and social get-togethers for apartment residents, according to Chris Ferry, attorney for the Housing Authority. Ferry recalled the Holland Towers Resident Council purchasing a video game console and cornhole equipment in recent years.
But for Jackie Commins and Chris DuBose, president and vice president of the Resident Council, respectively, elections planned for the end of the month have become much more than a matter of fun and games. The pair did not participate in the protest outside the meeting, but afterward said they represent the concerns of the residents involved. Both addressed the authority board in the meeting, arguing that recent policy changes at the building threaten to silence resident voices and that they are being pressured to delay the elections until spring.
Vanessa Rockovich, on the other hand, told the board that the Resident Council bylaws contained elements that were inconsistent with the policies of the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which funds the facility. In addition, according to Rockovich, the council had been inconsistent in its efforts to post flyers notifying residents about the upcoming elections.
“Not everybody reads the bulletin boards, so we wanted to make sure all the tenants were aware so that they could notify all the tenants,” Rockovich said. “It’s just laying things out so there’s no question, and I really really feel that not everything they did (that) was wrong was their fault.”
DuBose, however, insisted to the board that the group had followed its own bylaws and that its bylaws were consistent with HUD policy. If the bylaws need to be updated, DuBose argued, that can be done after the elections proceed as planned.
But Rockovich instead proposed leaving the current officers in place while changes are made to the bylaws, then holding new elections in the spring.
The possibility of compromise on the seemingly inconsequential question of whether the Resident Council holds an election on Oct. 29 or next spring seemed remarkably unlikely. The council asked Rockovich to oversee the election at the end of the month, she told the board.
“It’s not a legal election,” she said, “according to the procedure that has been followed for years.”
But DuBose countered that the election as planned is legal.
“We didn’t do it the way they wanted,” he said, “but we didn’t violate the regulations.”
Board Chairman Richard Zinn soon cut off discussion of the topic, saying the board would take it up in executive session, outside the view of the public.
As the board continued its discussion in private, Commins and DuBose mingled outside the meeting room with other residents. About 10 protesters could still be seen on the sidewalk, waving to passing vehicles. Another group of residents gathered on benches and in mobility scooters under a massive tree that shades much of the apartment building’s front yard.
Moving toward the shade, Commins and DuBose recalled their bedbug experiences over the past year. The pests first showed up in Commins’ apartment around Thanksgiving, she said. The treatment, according to Commins, was timing dependent, but delays threw the timing off. She lived with the insects until spring.
DuBose had an outbreak in his apartment, he said, and had it eradicated only to have the bugs come back again. At an earlier authority meeting, he told the board the bugs were simply being moved around from apartment to apartment.
Recurring themes heard from the protesting residents was the feeling that they are treated like children and that their voices aren’t being heard.
Another was the fear of possible eviction if they voice complaints.
Just because they reside in public housing, Commins and DuBose suggested, doesn’t mean the people of Holland Towers don’t deserve respect.
“We are not dumb,” DuBose said. “It’s just because we’ve had unfortunate incidents in our life that we end up here.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.