I can’t remember this happening. (ever) The police and the Northampton Housing Authority putting the spotlight on active heroin and other drug dealing in our public housing. The new director is putting her stamp on the organization.
A Housing Authority that asks for help with drugs, that works with the police to make complexes like Salvo House safer for tenants and safer for the whole community. The way things have been, our housing authority complexes are linked by our public bus system, which means that our drug dealers are centrally located and easy to find. Salvo House is right adjacent to the main supply route, Route 91. For people without cars, the buses start running from Pulaski Park down to Veterans Park in Holyoke on the half hour at 7:30 AM. Why has the Housing Authority never asked for help before? Because the Executive Director, Jon Hite, never wanted to look bad. NHA was a creation of the system, a creation of politicians. One of our fiefdoms.
Jon didn’t need help. Jon didn’t want bad publicity; Jon had a tough thankless job and was doing the best he could. Now the Governor of Massachusetts should wake up to the fact that the heroin epidemic and the poor administration of housing authorities might be related.
The impetus of this reform came from the members of the Housing Authority Board, with no help from the Mayor or our City Council. From reading their facial and body expressions over the last few years, from all the crossed arms, frowns and silence at housing authority meetings, anyone could see they had grown fed up with their executive director Jon Hite; they were fed up with the unhappiness of their tenants. And so they took a big gamble and brought in someone from the outside, someone who was from the private sector, who had spent many years managing private complexes. Someone who expected tenants to live up to their leases, and who was accustomed to living up to her end of the bargain.
Cara Clifford has not had an easy seven months of it. She made mistakes. Our last governor, Deval Patrick tried to reform how the state administers public housing by regionalizing it, and our establishment liked things the way they were. Our mayor did not support the new broom, even though the Northampton Housing Authority was a poster child for what’s wrong with the existing order. Jon Hite and his Democratic machine was a reliable source of patronage and political support.
A couple years ago, the Warren campaign had a campaign get-together at the Hotel Northampton. A talk by Al Franken. And of course Jon Hite was there, hanging out with all the important people in town.
Jon was in the middle of the political world he loves best, and he was dressed to kill. He was the key guy in Clare’s inner circle that masterminded her re-election drives, and helped ramrod the inner mechanics of her drive for the new police station. Why was it more important for the head of the housing authority to work on the police station? It kind of intimated that running the housing authority wasn’t that important.
Everyone up at city hall always viewed him with great sympathy.
“Poor Jon,” they would say, “What a burden he has.”
What a burden he was to the thousand or more people who lived in his fiefdom. And the taxpayers who paid his salary, the police that came and went, dealing with crises in his units and never seeing them resolved. I saw him standing there by the dumpsters one night. He looked like hell. I knew his health wasn’t the greatest and knew his chain-smoking and addiction to scratch tickets wasn’t doing him any good, I felt a wave of compassion for him.
A big mistake. LeCarre nailed it in The Honourable Schoolboy: compassion is an occupational disease that afflicts field agents and reporters. You can’t feel sorry for people you report on, especially in this little hothouse town.
Jon was a classic political appointee, a failed politician who got his job due to connections, and not qualifications. Politics, patronage, and hiring from the inside have characterized the Authority’s operation for many years. The last executive director of the Northampton Housing Authority before Jon was former commissioner George J. O’Brien. To work his way around state conflict of interest laws that prevented commissioners electing one of their own to the main paid position, he resigned as commissioner, and then about three months later his fellow commissioners elected him to be executive director. He was a genial tough-minded electrician who ran the authority for 27 years until the scandalous conditions of Florence Heights in 1987 (all Hispanic, completely run down) brought in the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination. Mayor David Musante, backed by former State Rep. James G. Collins, forced O’Brien to retire, and a new board of commissioners hired Jon Hite. Like O’Brien, he got his job without any previous professional experience. Hite was a legislative aide and protégé of former State Rep. James G. Collins. When Collins stepped over to be President of UMass, Hite followed along and became director of Alumni Relations.
Jon Hite lived in Amherst. He ran successfully for town meeting, and unsuccessfully for selectman in 1987. That year he raised a lot of money from Boston-area supporters who knew him when he worked for Collins, but he came in dead last. Hite was not thrilled when he was asked to be deputy director of the Northampton Housing Authority. He made it clear that if he were elected that year to Stan Rosenberg’s old seat in the House, he would go to the State House in Boston. In a special election, he was defeated by 129 votes by Ellen Story. Hite unhappily sat around in his new office for two years without much to do. O’Brien hated him.
Eventually, George O’Brien, picking his own day and hour of departure, walked out of his office into the sunset on Saint Patrick’s Day of 1992. Hite brought in one of the trustees of the city-owned Smith Vocational School, Paul Garvey, as director of maintenance, a man whose main job experience had been directing Smith College’s dining services. When the State did spot inspections of apartments in 1999, there were many serious violations. Then Hite replaced him with David Anderson, formerly a painter for the authority; someone with no management experience. In 2004 I talked with Hite about living conditions at Cahill. I asked him about David Anderson’s qualifications. Had he ever supervised people before he came to NHA? No, he said, he had never had any job involving supervision before he came to NHA, and no, he had never given him any training in supervision. Dead silence. To help him out, I commented that he was a nice guy, anyway.
“No,” he said, after some thought, “ No, he’s not a nice guy.”
So that was Jon Hite. His honesty took your breath away sometimes.