Crab-Apple Clash, Birdhouse Ban Pushed Seniors to Take a Stand

    Crab-Apple Clash, Birdhouse Ban Pushed Seniors to Take a Stand

    Rules at Housing Complex Created Activists; Fighting for Wind Chimes

    SHREWSBURY, Mass. — The imminent chopping down of a crab-apple tree, to make way for a large trash bin, was the last straw.

    Lee Perrone and Pat Henry, residents of a subsidized housing complex for the elderly here, tied chairs to the tree and sat down to protect it. Their protest kept the chain saws at bay, drawing curious onlookers and local reporters. A meals-on-wheels program sent them food. Their landlord, the Shrewsbury Housing Authority, sent them eviction notices.

    [Lee Perrone]

    Lee Perrone

    “My daughter thinks I lost it,” says Ms. Perrone, 74 years old. Her friend Ms. Henry is 65.

    The eviction notices brought to a head more than a year of friction between the housing agency and tenants of Shrewsbury’s Francis Gardens apartments, in a battle over cluttered patios, fire codes, an allegedly dangerous garbage bin, and who decides what’s best for old people.

    It was the garbage-bin hazard that meant the crab-apple tree had to go, the housing agency said. Another tenant injured her arm after falling on uneven pavement near the trash bin. The place chosen to relocate it was where the tree stood.

    Francis Gardens is the kind of “independent living” community that more people who want to avoid nursing homes are winding up in. Residents of such places often cope with limited mobility and advancing infirmity, as they try to preserve their quality of life. In Shrewsbury, a central Massachusetts town of some 33,000, tenants bristled at what they saw as excessive safety precautions.

    Francis Gardens, an array of brick-and-yellow-clapboard houses, has 100 one-bedroom apartments that tenants rent for a third of their monthly income. Many residents, especially elderly women living alone, have taken special pride in their decks and patios and decorated them with flower pots and rugs. In the warm months, social life revolves around the outside areas.

    [Pat Henry]

    The trouble began in June 2007, when a state public-housing inspector noticed that a door on one apartment’s deck was blocked by furniture, which it called a “fire-egress obstruction.” In a letter the next month to residents, Dennis Osborn, executive director of the Shrewsbury Housing Authority, cited violations of building and fire codes.

    Later that summer, the authority issued a new obstruction policy. “No chairs, tables, flowerpots, wind chimes, flags, mobiles, birdhouses or similar items shall be placed on decks or patios, or hang from, gutters, hand railings, trees, or the buildings,” it said. “Common entry hallways must remain clear of floor mats, throw rugs [and] welcome mats.”

    Tenants acknowledge some decks were overflowing with clutter. Ms. Perrone recalls one deck in particular looked like “the city dump.” But in a letter to the housing authority, 65 tenants asked why everyone should be punished. “Now you want us to take ALL things off our porches/patios,” a move that would give Francis Gardens “a blank sterile atmosphere,” the letter said. “That would only serve to hinder people [who] can’t walk very well from getting out at all.”

    The authorities didn’t back down. “You can’t look at that as your patio or your deck,” says Gerald LaFlamme, who was the town’s fire chief at the time the obstruction policy was issued. “You have to look at it as a legal entity called ‘the fire exit.’ ” Mr. LaFlamme says blocked exits have hampered his firemen in the past.

    Helen Jarzobski, 93, had set up a plastic table and four chairs on a grassy patch next to her small patio. “I had a little sign that said ‘friends welcome,’ ” recalls Ms. Jarzobski. “People would walk by, and they would sit and talk to me.” The housing authority removed the table and chairs, she says.

    The new restrictions were particularly hard for Ms. Jarzobski. After a car accident a year ago convinced her to give up driving after 53 years, her world shrank to the size of her small apartment and her patio.

    [Helen Jarzobski]

    Helen Jarzobski

    Ms. Perrone threw away the flowerpots hanging over the handrail of her deck, and removed the sun umbrella under which she used to read. Housing officials took away a rug and curtains she placed in a common hallway, she says.

    Mr. Osborn of the housing authority declined repeated interview requests. Richard Ricker, one of the authority’s five commissioners, says the obstruction policy was based on “the lawful commands of the fire chief, and of the state and local inspectors.”

    Before Halloween last year, Ms. Perrone borrowed a striped prison-style tracksuit and a cap and wore it to a small protest in the middle of Francis Gardens. She carried a sign that read “State-funded prison for senior citizens.” The protest brought local media attention and put the battle on the map.

    After her patio furniture was confiscated, Ms. Jarzobski removed a birdbath from her deck. But Ms. Jarzobski, who is of Italian descent, refused to take down wind chimes and an Italian flag nailed to a tree in memory of her brother, who died in World War II. Her family bought her a new, elevated chair that was easier on her ailing legs — and chained it to a post on the deck to prevent housing officials from taking it.

    In September, Ms. Jarzobski received a letter from Mr. Osborn, who ordered her to remove the chair and wind chimes or face possible eviction. Ms. Jarzobski ignored it, and on Sept. 23 received a 30-day eviction notice citing a “violation of the obstruction policy.” She’d lived in Francis Gardens for 32 years.

    Ms. Perrone and Ms. Henry, who had been sitting guard at the crab-apple tree, received their eviction notices the same day. The two women, already angered by the obstruction policy, worried that the moved garbage bin would be too close to their windows. And Ms. Perrone says that just because the tree is old and scraggly doesn’t mean it needs to die. “My skin is flaky and I’m old, too,” she says.

    Facing eviction, the tree defenders and Ms. Jarzobski filed complaints with the local housing court. Their lawyer chartered a bus to ferry the plaintiffs and other residents to the court hearing scheduled for late September.

    After a state legislator decided to mediate, the housing authority chose to avoid a courtroom battle. On Sept. 29, the eviction notices were rescinded. Shrewsbury’s new fire chief, Robert Gaucher, says that as long as the tenants keep the fire-escape paths clear, they can have some personal items on their decks. “We are a little more flexible,” he says.

    The crab-apple tree was saved, and the garbage bin is staying put. Housing officials say they plan to patch up the cracked concrete in its current location. To celebrate victory, Ms. Perrone dressed up as a crab-apple tree for Halloween this year. A new tenants committee has been meeting with the housing director twice a month to discuss concerns. “We are not looking for trouble at our age,” Ms. Perrone says.

    Write to Philip Shishkin at


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