Jul 24, 2014

Community coalition holds sidewalk rally to highlight housing issues



Story and photos by Father Bill Pomerleau

SPRINGFIELD -- The political environment for current and former refugees in Springfield shifted significantly July 24 when the city council president distanced himself from the opinions of the city’s mayor.

“I want to apologize to you, and thank you for coming to our city,” Springfield City Council president Michael Fenton said to a group of former Somali Bantu refugees who joined 80 others at a sidewalk rally sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Project (PVP).

“I want to salute you for your entrepreneurial spirit,” Fenton said, adding that he was proud to head a 13-member council that is diverse in its racial, ethnic, gender and sexual orientation makeup.

Noting that he is the grandson of immigrants, he agreed with earlier speakers at the rally who described what happened earlier this year at 515 Union St. as a problem caused by an irresponsible landlord, not refugees.

PVP, a community coalition that includes the Diocese of Springfield, several local parishes and the Sisters of St. Joseph, staged their rally at the two-story house in the Maple-High neighborhood to counter the arguments of Mayor Domenic Sarno, who has twice called for a moratorium on refugee resettlement in Springfield.

In late May, a member of the extended family of Hajib Mamo called Springfield police for help when Northeast Utilities shut off the building’s electricity. City officials responded by condemning the building after finding what David Cotter, deputy director of code enforcement, said was “the worse roach infestation he has seen in many years.”

Cotter claimed that the insects were so large he had to order his inspectors out of the building. The occupants, who were resettled as refugees in 2003, were brought to a Greenfield motel housing homeless families.

After weeks of efforts by city and state agencies, Catholic Charities and Jewish Family Service, the family members were relocated into a new home last week.

Sarno cited the incident as evidence that Springfield should stop welcoming refugees into the city, and wrote a letter to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Springfield) seeking support. It is  not known how, or if, Neal has responded to the mayor's letter.

Participants in the Thursday evening rally, who included religious and labor leaders, said that the problem the Mamo family encountered was caused by an irresponsible absentee landlord from eastern Massachusetts. They accused the mayor of scape-goating refugee families and resettlement agencies to hide a broader problem that the city has not been able to adequately combat.

Fenton told iobserve that he wants that to change by enacting legislation to combat urban blight. “I intend to make this the number one issue in the city for the next two years,” he said.

Fenton said he supported a proposed city ordinance by councilor Orlando Ramos that would require all landlords to register with the city before renting apartments, and pay fees to finance the hiring of additional inspectors who would inspect units on a regular schedule. 

“Right now we don’t have the personnel and the procedure to set on top of this (problem),” Fenton said.

He added that while the housing problems of some immigrants may make headlines, the city’s housing problems are much bigger than the challenge of integrating refugees. He accused irresponsible landlords of particularly exploiting newcomers and other poor people who are less savvy about how to defend their rights.