CANTON — Tenants at Riverside Drive’s public housing complex have a lot to say.
When a group of women signed on to the village’s virtual monthly meeting Wednesday night, it wasn’t the first time Canton Housing Authority residents had approached the village Board of Trustees to air grievances.
“We don’t want to keep bothering you all the time,” Beverly J. Bice told the four trustees and Mayor Michael E. Dalton. “But you are our only hope.”
At 95 years old, Ms. Bice has lived at the complex for a total of 22 years. She was born and raised in Canton, and lived in Syracuse for four decades. When her parents moved into Canton’s public housing in the 1990s, she joined them until they died, returning to Syracuse in 1997 to be near her preferred doctors. She moved back to the north country in 2004, and now lives on the fourth floor of Tower 37 with her dog Minnie, “a spoiled little poodle.”
Two Riverside high rises — 35 and 37 — and units for families and older adults on Law Lane comprise Canton’s public housing, first established in 1969.
More than 3,300 Public Housing Authorities across the country are set up through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and administered through state field offices. Generally, HUD-funded public housing is designed for low-income families, older adults and people with disabilities.
In New York state, field offices are located in New York City, Albany and Canton’s designated field office in Buffalo.
Tenant complaints related to Executive Director Amanda L. St. Marie, safety, maintenance, oversight and staff reached the St. Lawrence County Office for the Aging a few months ago, prompting OFA Director Andrea M. Montgomery to submit a letter to the village board and attend this week’s meeting.
“At the Office for the Aging, while we are happy to act as a support and in an advocacy role, we don’t have any other authority over any apartment building,” Ms. Montgomery told village officials.
Under state law, a housing authority is to be governed by a board of directors, a body appointed by the municipality in which the housing is established. A board is constituted by at least three members and no more than seven, and for authorities outside large cities supervising more than 100 occupied units, two elected tenants are supposed to serve on the board.
Canton’s board of directors disbanded in October, according to Ms. St. Marie, all four non-tenant members having resigned.
In her letter to the village, Ms. Montgomery wrote tenants sought assistance from OFA, HUD, the state attorney general’s office and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York at the Canton office on Hodskin Street.
“Tenants of these buildings deserve an immediate resource to bring forth their concerns when they feel the issues aren’t being addressed appropriately or in a timely manner,” Ms. Montgomery wrote. “I feel it is the duty and obligation of government to help remove barriers for older adults and provide them easily accessible outlets to voice their concerns, so they can age safely in place.”
When tenants feel like they aren’t being heard, she added during Wednesday’s meeting, “Where do they go?”
Ms. Montgomery and the tenants who spoke during the meeting’s public comment period requested the mayor reinstate a board of directors.
“We have been attempting over the last few months to re-establish the board, and that has been a difficult thing to attempt,” Mr. Dalton said, adding that he’s reached out to potential volunteers and is “committed to getting the board filled.”
Trustee Carol S. Pynchon affirmed the village has been working to recruit members, though they see the Housing Authority as “a hornet’s nest that’s already been kicked.”
“And they’re going to be asked to come in and try to fix it,” Ms. Pynchon said.
After listening to tenants allege specific complaints, trustee Anna M. Sorensen said what’s happening is “unacceptable” and “horrible.”
Tenants cycled across a Zoom screen, describing incidents from this year involving unlocked doors, building heat, work orders not being filled, and perhaps most concerning to them, unreachable staff.
Contracted work to rehab Tower 37 doors has left the building’s residents feeling unsafe, according to Ms. Bice. Through the replacement process, at least three outside doors have been left unlocked or completely unhinged, sometimes only frames separating the halls from the parking lot, she said during an interview Thursday.
A second tenant living at Tower 37 confirmed her observations Thursday afternoon.
Other tenants on Wednesday said the main floor restrooms and the basement laundry room restroom are unusable, either locked or blocked off. “When nature happens,” Ms. Bice said, disabled and older adults can’t get to their units fast enough and have previously had to urinate on the elevators that span the building’s seven stories.
Tower 37 resident Deborah A. St. Germain told trustees her kitchen bulb “was like a strobe light” for three or four months after asking maintenance to replace it.
Sitting in her office on the main floor of Tower 37 on Thursday morning, Ms. St. Marie said maintenance staff would not have taken that long to complete the request.
“Did it take a while for a light bulb to be replaced? I’m not sure,” she said. “They would have done it within 24 hours, two days at the most.”
Protocol for responding to maintenance requests shifted at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with work orders grouped as urgent or non-urgent. To prevent unnecessary contact with tenants, Ms. St. Marie said, urgent requests have been prioritized. Lighting, heat, water and toilet issues, for example, are considered urgent.
Ms. St. Marie said pandemic isolation has been tough on tenants, and she expects to reopen the building to visitors next week. Her own mother lives in Tower 35, her son and her sister live on Law Lane. She also said she expects to have a board of directors again “within the next month or two.”
“I am very aware of how frustrating it is to sit inside their tiny little apartments and not be able to have guests,” she said. “I think they’re waiting for things to change here, and I’m just about to change them. But they would know that if they had called me.”
Two years ago, almost to the day of this week’s letter, Ms. Bice wrote Mr. Dalton to explain how tenants’ storage space was revoked and to ask who oversees Housing Authority employees, as the board of directors at the time was not accepting tenant complaints about staff.
“I guess we just get upset in April,” she said with a modest laugh.
Ms. Bice again wondered about oversight this week, as did Ms. St. Germain.
“I know it’s different now with COVID — we’re on uncharted waters,” Ms. St. Germain said during her turn Wednesday. “But the thing is, who does Amanda answer to?”
Mr. Dalton responded: “I think that’s a very good question.”
Housing Authority positions are filled through the state Department of Civil Service, and the authority’s executive director hires office and maintenance staff. Ms. St. Marie said she doesn’t have a boss, but that she works with HUD’s Buffalo field office on behalf of the authority.
She was hired to work in the office by former Director Diane P. Burns, and in her 14th year as a Housing Authority employee, Ms. St. Marie said she feels like she’s “been really open” to tenants as executive director for the last two years.
“I’m not unapproachable,” she said. “This is why this upsets me a little bit, because if they have an issue, I want to solve it.”
Ms. Bice, who served for several years as an elected tenant representative on previous boards, said she and her fellow residents have been calling — dialing Ms. St. Marie’s office line and even knocking on office doors.
“There’s always three sides to a story,” Ms. St. Marie said. “I feel like I’m telling the truth, but maybe they see it a different way.”
In addition to Ms. St. Marie, whose desk features a metallic “executive director” nameplate, the authority’s office is currently staffed by four people. Ms. St. Marie said she anticipates two of those staffers to resign next week. She let another staffer go in January, and others left last year.
One custodian and “an excellent maintenance staff” of four, Ms. St. Marie said, complete the site’s roster. Those 10 people — soon turning to eight — are responsible for all operations at the Riverside and Law Lane facilities.
Canton Police Chief James R. Santimaw said he connected with the county OFA following the village meeting, reminding the agency that the police department can be a resource as tenant grievances are received. Though not suggesting any Housing Authority staff have done anything to warrant a civil or criminal investigation, he said Wednesday’s public comments concerned him.
He said his relatives have lived in Canton public housing over the years, and he commended tenants for being “brave enough” to talk about what they’ve experienced inside.
“That place, it means something to me, too,” he said. “And we want to make sure everyone’s OK.”
Ms. Bice said Ms. St. Marie is unchecked, but that the Housing Authority’s negligence is longstanding. Tower 37’s heat, she said, has been an issue for years, and was particularly egregious under Ms. St. Marie’s predecessor Cynthia L. Moore.
“If you went down to the main floor to get your mail, you had to wear your coat,” Ms. Bice recalled.
She used to use a space heater and her oven to keep warm, even during the day.
In conjunction with Tower 37’s heat being on, Ms. Bice said, early April’s unseasonable heat sent tenants to the hospital.
“If you don’t live here, it might seem like we’re just complainers,” she said, with an understanding of the phrase “people don’t like change.” “But that’s not what’s happening here.”
Ms. Bice worked as a bookkeeper for most of her adult life, including at Canton’s Legal Aid office. When tenants tell her they plan to speak to Legal Aid, Ms. Bice knows what they will say of Ms. St. Marie and other staff: “They have done nothing illegal.”
But legality, she said, doesn’t equate to “common decency.”
“People are afraid of her,” she said of Ms. St. Marie, who has nearly 200 tenants in her charge. “I’m not.”