Editorial: State heating law needs flexibility; Amherst activist dies

  • An air conditioner unit —Public Domain

Thursday, October 05, 2017

An early autumn heat wave last week exposed a flaw in the state law requiring landlords to provide heat from Sept. 15 to June 15. State officials need to make the law more flexible to account for unseasonably warm outdoor temperatures in late September or after.

The problem is that some apartment buildings — including the Clark House on Lessey Street in Amherst and Michael’s House on State Street in Northampton — do not have separate heating and cooling systems. When the heating system is activated Sept. 15, as required by state law, the air conditioning cannot be turned back on unless a variance is granted by the Board of Health — a process that may well take longer than the heat wave.

Most of the tenants at the Clark and Michael’s houses are seniors, who because of health issues may be particularly uncomfortable in the heat, especially if they lack the mobility to leave their apartment for a cooler  place during the day.

Last week, temperatures reached the upper 80s on the first floor of the six-story Clark House, leaving tenants like Christina Rose with no way to cool down in their apartment. “Our system either has air or it has heat,” she said. “It’s not like you have a choice to put either one on.”

WinnResidential in Boston manages the Clark House, and in a letter to tenants apologized for its inability to put the air conditioning back on, noting that it had already been winterized.

Furthermore, Ed Cafasso, a spokesman for the  property management company, pointed out it would have been illegal to turn the cooling system back on after Sept. 15 without a variance from the health board.

Conditions were similar at the Michael’s House, where tenant Laura Bellusci said, “The heat in these apartments has been so unbearable to make getting a good night’s sleep nearly impossible.” 

Though management put an air conditioner in the window of the fourth-floor crafts room at the Michaels House, Bellusci said “whenever I popped in for a cooling breath there weren’t any people making use of it … many have a difficult time moving around and making adjustments.”

The state sanitary code, which is overseen by the Department of Public Health, sets minimum standards of fitness for habitation “to protect the health, safety and well-being of the occupants of housing.” Landlords must provide heat of least 68 degrees between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., and at least 64 degrees the rest of the time, except between June 15 and Sept. 15.

Cafasso said this year’s heat wave is motivation to seek a permanent variance from the Board of Health so air conditioning is available, if needed, from May 1 to Oct. 1 in future years at Clark House. That’s a sound idea.

Even better is to increase flexibility for all landlords with a change in the state regulation. Coincidentally, the Department of Public Health is rewriting the code to update sections of the minimum standards for habitation. Among the proposed revisions is allowing local boards of health to decide the number of heating days required, and post that information in each community.

That’s a common-sense approach that we hope is adopted so no tenants again will have to endure uncomfortable heat due to unpredictable weather.

* * *

Undoubtedly, Isaac Ben Ezra is one man who would have taken up the cause of tenants seeking relief from inflexible state regulations. Ben Ezra died at age 91 on Monday at the Hospice of the Fisher Home where he had been since early September. He had lived in Amherst since 1996.

Social work was his profession, but Ben Ezra’s mission in life was working to right social injustices. He was an activist in the labor and civil rights movements and an advocate for better health care, the environment and senior rights. 

Town Meeting member Adrienne Terrizzi, who had many conversations with Ben Ezra over their shared interest in the Middle East, described him as the conscience of Amherst. “He’d often urge activism in the area where he felt we were lagging in town.”

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who spoke during a celebration of Ben Ezra’s career three years ago, this week said, “He was a true champion for seniors. He fought for affordable health care and medications. If you were fighting against any injustice, you always wanted Isaac in your corner.”

Ben Ezra lived a full life, rich with adventure and meaning, and along the way enriched the lives of many others.