A very, very powerful movement of Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) tenants has begun to organize over the past several weeks aimed at the outrages that are coming to light about former Executive Director Michael McLaughlin – and the breaking point in the explosion of the movement has apparently been what is seen by most residents as a sweetheart plea deal given to McLaughlin by U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz.
“The tenants are going to be submitting something to the U.S. Attorney, but with an eye on sending something to the judge as well,” said Jay Rose, the managing attorney for the housing unit of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS). “This is a very new, but powerful movement, and details are still being worked out. The tenants realize they need to stand up for their rights. They believe they are victims and McLaughlin is getting off too easy. They’re organizing around that emotion right now…The movement here just started. It’s very, very powerful and tenants are outraged, energized and heading in a definite direction.
“Basically, they don’t want him to get away with pointing fingers at other politicians, and if he does that, he possibly gets no jail time and there is no restitution to the CHA,” he continued. “They just won’t accept that.”
Apparently, tenants have been talking quietly about all of the recent revelations, and were outraged, but things began to gain steam when McLaughlin pleaded guilty last month and his plea deal became public.
Tenants started calling one another and started talking more and more about it. Eventually, they reached out to Rose at GBLS and to the Chelsea Collaborative. Rose said he is handling the legal end of things and the Collaborative is handling the grass-roots organizing of the movement.
Two meetings have been held to date, one with 45 people and the second with 75 people. CHA residents came from all developments, some who were elected to resident boards and some who came as individuals.
One of the key elements in the movement is to demand that the judge require McLaughlin to pay back the CHA for money he misused and diverted to his own salary and to raises for his favored employees. Rose said that residents want to see McLaughlin have to pay back the money he did not use to improve their living conditions.
“They want to tell the U.S. Attorney that they believe they are victims of this crime – this crime of stealing money and diverting money salaries instead of repairs that the residents didn’t get,” Rose said. “They lived in unsanitary conditions and deplorable conditions for years and he used the money meant to improve those conditions for himself and to give out raises. Now, they want restitution.”
However, the residents are not asking for money for themselves – though Rose said a case for that could be made. Instead, they’re asking that McLaughlin have to pay the CHA the money, that they money go into a special fund for immediate improvements to conditions in the developments.
“Whether that means McLaughlin has to sell assets or one of his homes or his cars or convert the money he took, that’s up to the judge,” said Rose.
For now, residents and Collaborative organizers are out knocking on doors, making phone calls and circulating petitions. The tenor, Rose said, is one of outrage at every development they go to. Some are fearful to sign petitions or get active – still scared from the decades-long reign of terror they say McLaughlin put them through. However, they have been assured that they will be protected from retaliation and retribution. With that assurance, many are signing on and the numbers are only expected to increase as the movement’s message gets sharpened.
“People say McLaughlin was a snake, but we believe that is probably offensive to the actual slithering creatures that bear such a name,” said Rose. “McLaughlin treated the residents during his reign of terror as second-class citizens. He viewed the landlord-tenant relationship as if he was back in the feudal days. He really thought he was the lord in landlord and ran it like a fiefdom. Residents are talking about making sure this never happens again, taking a very active role in the housing authority. They blame HUD and [the state] for not policing this. They’ve learned and realize they have to take matters into their own hands. I think that’s what you’re seeing here.”