Lodging house tenants worry about plans for 129 Pleasant St.
NORTHAMPTON — On the porch of Northampton Lodging Thursday morning, Robert Martinez, who lives and works there, said he’s worried a new plan in the works for the building may put him back on the street.
Martinez has lived in the 58-room, subsidized complex for about 18 months after being homeless for 15 years.
It’s home to him now. That’s why he’s concerned about a plan proposed by HAP Housing, a nonprofit developer of affordable housing, to demolish the building and replace it with a five-story mixed-use building featuring retail and affordable and market-rate units. Despite HAP’s promises to help the building’s current tenants find a place to live once Northampton Lodging is torn down, Martinez and other tenants say they worry HAP’s plan will leave them out in the cold.
Northampton Lodging, a three-story 11,700-square-foot building built in 1967 as dormitory for the former Northampton Commercial College, is, for many tenants a rung just above living in a homeless shelter or on the streets.
For the city, the building has been both an eyesore and a trouble spot for many years.
Northampton Police Capt. Jody Kasper said her department frequently is called to respond to problems at Northampton Lodging. Between 2009 and this year, she said, police have handled 1,355 calls for medical emergencies, disturbances, thefts and unwanted guest or trespassing calls. That averages out to about 1.3 calls per day over the last five years.
In an interview at the police station Thursday, Kasper said the building is one police visit “frequently,” though she noted the large number of calls usually has to do with a disproportionately small number of residents.
Most of the calls, she said, are for general disturbances, noise complaints, and medical calls. She noted that the building is a prime location for low-income housing, being close to downtown and public transportation.
Peaches Raeven, 22, a Holyoke Community College student, is one of those drawn by cheap rent and access to a bus line. She’s been living at Northampton Lodging since August after moving from Florida for school.
Raeven said she sometimes feels unsafe in the building, though she says it has less to do with her neighbors and fellow tenants than with others who drift in and out of the building and the surrounding area.
“This place is known for drugs,” she said.
Still, she said, over the past months she has developed close bonds with many of her neighbors and dismisses the notion that the building is populated with nothing but criminals and lowlifes.
“It’s like a dorm, but we’re kind of like a big family here,” she said. “Some of us might have records — but, we’re not all horrible people.”
Northampton Lodging owner William McLoughlin, who has owned the building for 37 years, said some tenants have lived there for up to 26 years, and he hopes HAP will find them suitable quarters.
“Someone you’ve known that long, you don’t want to put them on the street,” he said.
He said he’s “delighted” by the HAP proposal and hopes temporary housing will be secured for tenants who want to stay on when the new building is built.
“It’s much better to have HAP supply people with housing,” he said. “It’s one of the best outfits in the Valley to come up with temporary housing. That’s their business.”
Meanwhile, McLoughlin said he would be printing up and distributing notes to tenants on Thursday informing them of HAP’s plans, but when approached by the Gazette Thursday, many tenants were surprised by the news.
Among those surprised was Robert Martinez. When informed of HAP’s plan to help relocate tenants who qualify, Martinez said it is the part about qualifying to stay that raises concerns for him.
He said he’s been denied housing due to his status as a Level 3 sex offender, and Northampton Lodging was the only place that would rent a room to him that he could afford.
He’s concerned that if the plan goes through, he may not qualify for the relocation or be offered a room in the new building.
“Where am I supposed to live?” he said.
According to police, Martinez has several sex crime convictions on his record dating back to 1995, the most recent being two counts of indecent assault and battery in August 2003. Since then he’s been trying to keep his life on track. He spends time volunteering at area shelters and for the last couple of months has been working for Northampton Lodging as a custodian.
“I did my time,” he said. “It’s time to give back.”
Uncertainty about the future of their housing is only one immediate concern aired among Northampton Lodging residents who agreed to be interviewed Thursday.
An infestation of bedbugs and cockroaches, unsanitary shared bathrooms, tiny rooms, noise, daily visits from police and a number of recent drug-related deaths are all things residents listed among their day-to-day concerns.
Cody Haskins, 22, who has been staying in a basement apartment with his girlfriend, Rebecca Sanborn, 27, for about 11 months, showed bite marks he says are from bedbugs.
On Thursday, exterminator crews were going through the building, spraying rooms, including theirs. McLoughlin said the problem began slowly, in only a small number of rooms, but it wasn’t reported to management until it had spread throughout the building.
Exterminators have sprayed about 45 of the 58 rooms, he said, and the remainder should be done next week.
Haskins says he has found the overdose deaths especially alarming.
Kasper could not give a firm number for overdoses at Northampton Lodging but she said one overdose was reversed last Friday by using Narcan, though that same person overdosed and died the following Monday.
Haskins estimates there has been one overdose about every two months.
“Half the people who die here aren’t even in their 50s,” he said.
Haskins said he and Sanborn are hoping they will either qualify for relocation, if the plan goes through, or be able to eventually afford other housing.
“We want to be out of here as soon as possible,” he said.
“Relocating would be better, but there’s nothing else in this price range.”
Haskins said the rent on their room is $500 per month, but was reduced to $400 due to their income.
Sanborn says she sometimes feels unsafe in her home and noted that the shared bathroom is awkward, especially when it comes to traveling down the hallway for a shower every day.
She said there are walls in the building discolored and caked with dust, and she has seen walls with blood and feces on them.
Sanborn, who used to work on a horse farm, said, “It smelled better in the barn.”
Kristopher Hansel has lived in the building for eight months and says he is frustrated by the conditions.
“I pay good money to live next to a janitor’s closet,” he said.
Before moving to Northampton, Hansel said, he spent five months on the streets of Boston.
The night before he moved into his room in Northampton Lodging, he said, he slept in the bushes across the street.
These days, he said, he gets by on Social Security payments, picking up odd jobs and collecting cans.
He said he collects disability payments, most of which go directly to rent, and that he and his girlfriend try to make ends meet with SNAP benefits and relying on food pantries.
“I can’t survive like this anymore, he said. “It’s straight up poverty.”
He says he pays his rent in full every month, but still, the uncertainty ahead of him creates a lot of anxiety.
“I’ve been dealing with it day-by-day, minute-by-minute,” he said. “I have no idea where I’m going or what I can afford.
“What if I don’t qualify? I refuse to be homeless.”
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com.