By Sarah Robertson
HOLYOKE – “We’re not going to be victims anymore, we’re going to become a problem,” said Holyoke resident and community organizer Gloria Caballero-Roca standing outside Holyoke city hall last Tuesday. “We are paying taxes and we demand healthy living, decent living, and affordable living.”
Caballero-Roca joined more than 40 people for a rally outside city hall on March 21st to call for the creation of an “office of tenant protections” in the city of Holyoke. The problem, according to rally goers, is that many Holyoke residents are living with substandard conditions and paying too much in rent. Attendees at Tuesday’s rally took turns sharing stories about living with mold, lack of heat, and deceptive landlords.
“I’ve seen firsthand the living conditions of people here in Holyoke and all over western Massachusetts. It is detrimental to their health. It is inhumane,” Caballero-Roca said. “We live under a neoliberal system that deregulates, and that’s why housing has become a commodity when it is a need and a human right.”
A former candidate for mayor of Holyoke and state auditor, Caballero-Roca works at The Care Center helping disadvantaged women get into college, and volunteers with Neighbor to Neighbor, a nonprofit community advocacy group that organized Tuesday’s event. Neighbor to Neighbor has been working closely with the Tenants Union of Western Mass (TUWM) to knock on doors and organize renters fighting for their rights.
Tuesday’s rally concluded a seven-day campaign by the TUWM to advocate for tenants’ rights and get the word out about the new organization. The group held signs in support of rent control at the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade the weekend prior and found most people responded positively to their signs and chants.
The problem, according to organizers, is that the city’s housing stock has been consolidated under the ownership of a few property management companies since the 2008 housing crisis. These companies are focused on maximizing profit, and have little incentive to make improvements to residents’ living conditions.
“When these landlords are corporations, there’s no one you can really target, there’s no names, there’s nothing and tenants fall through the cracks,” Caballero-Roca said.
Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia declined an invitation to attend Tuesday’s rally, but a city employee named Stephen Fay did respond to the organizers by email on his behalf.
“[T]he mayor welcomes protests and rallies at City Hall at any time, especially as it relates to tenants’ rights,” Fay wrote. “In regards to creating a local office of tenant protections, the mayor is not in the position at this time to create such an office through the local government. But he is willing to help advocate at the state level to those who have direct influence on the laws and can offer real solutions for tenant protection, not just in Holyoke but throughout the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the Country.”
The mayor also indicated that he would support forming an advisory committee to address renters’ concerns over housing conditions and affordability.
Local boards of health are tasked with enforcing state housing code and inspecting dwellings to make sure the conditions are healthy and safe. So far this year the Holyoke Board of Health has received roughly 80 housing complaints ranging from major issues to minor repairs, according to health director Sean Gonsalves, but they are having trouble keeping up.
“The Board of Health is not fully staffed,” Gonsalves told The Shoestring. “Due to post-pandemic budget cuts, one of our inspector positions has been defunded for two consecutive fiscal years. I am optimistic that the City will restore that position this upcoming fiscal year.”
Gonsalves also said that he supports the creation of an Office of Tenant Protection, run separately from the Board of Health.
“I think that an effective Office of Tenant Protection would be independent from code enforcement activities, and have the correct staff and capability to advise tenants and occupants on their legal rights and remedies,” Gonsalves said. “That office could then work with the Board of Health, other City Departments and the Housing Court to find the best possible outcome for tenants and occupants.”
At the rally, a new member of the TUWM named Wren described their struggles trying to afford rent living in Chicopee while working as a teacher. Their rent now is twice what they were paying in Albuquerque, and the apartment comes with holes in the walls and a management company that tried to trick tenants out of their security deposits and one month’s rent.
“When I think of an office of tenant protections, I think of how it could tip the scales for us throughout the river valley,” Wren said. “It is a commitment from your government that they will do what they can to keep your community in one piece, to protect your livelihood, to acknowledge your right to live in a decent sanitary place with a roof over you and your child’s heads, knick knacks on the walls, and a pet you don’t have to hide for fear of a rent hike.”
The chair of the board for the Holyoke Housing Authority Theresa Cooper-Gordon addressed the crowd, echoing these sentiments and encouraging attendees to invoke one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa called Ujima, or “collective work and responsibility.”
“We have a responsibility to make sure our community is meeting the needs of the people here in our community, ” Cooper-Gordon said. “We have a lot of organizations that believe in housing as a human right, and I think that we all have to unify. We have to all stop working in these silos because the people united have all the power.”
After Tuesday’s rally, Caballero-Roca told The Shoestring that Holyoke is experiencing a rapid increase in commercial interest and development that has the potential to drastically change the city. The renewed attention could make life better for everyone in Holyoke, or push out its most vulnerable residents.
“These are the first steps towards gentrification…. People who have lived here, who were born here, and who have gone through a lot of struggle, they’re still here making Holyoke what it is,” she said. “It’s only fair that we poor people come together, organize and mobilize and demand that the powers that be listen to us.”
Sarah Robertson is an independent journalist living in western Mass. Photo: Sage Orville.
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