Needham Housing Trashes Community Room in Retaliatory Clean-up


- NEEDHAM, MA   The residents of the Linden/Chambers apartments had a Christmas party in December 2022 in the community room at 5 Chambers Street.  I read about it in the newspapers.  I saw it on TV.  It was wonderful.  Everyone was happy.  I was there. I got to play in the band.   But, by March, 2023, Steve Merritt, the most recent in the line of interim, temporary, acting or permanent executive directors at the Needham Housing Authority (NHA) was proposing to shut the place down.

Steve Merritt's short term contracts (5-9 months each)  with NHA, at something like $500.- per week, could not be again renewed, as the state Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) advised against it.   NHA intends to bypass DHCD and keep Steve around, anyway, as a consultant.     

Mr. Merritt, known as Santa Claus (from the party), instigated and/or exacerbated several incidents with residents, at the community room.   I don't know about the connection, but these incidents were followed by a set of retaliatory proposals to limit and control community access.

1)  Steve and George.   With a small crowd of tenants and volunteers, Steve was trying to get the wi-fi and cable TV up and running - a useful endeavor since the media had been broken and unusable for over a month, while the staff was busy with the Christmas party.

Enter: George, a frisky mixed breed mutt that playfully jumped up on one of the couches.  Steve, already frustrated with the IT problems, started yelling at George, wagging his finger, and reaching for the dog's collar.  George jumped down and then then up onto the other couch.  George was playing.  Steve was venting his anger and other frustrations.   I was surprised.  This was a sure fire way to get bitten by a dog.

George's owner had an interesting response.  She said, "Steve, George doesn't understand what you're saying." 

If there was a policy or common sense approach, it would be "Regarding  an active and unleashed dog, do not yell at the dog.  Do not try to grab the dog.  Communicate with the owner of the dog. "  Steve phoned George's owner, later, to apologize, but then proceeded to blame her for having a dog, when it was Steve, who mishandled the situation, who took the ordinary activity of a friendly dog and created an unpleasant incident out of nothing.

2) Steve and M.   There was a NHA Commissioners Meeting, in January (?) at the community room at 5 Chambers.   M., who everyone knows to be touchy and volatile, burst onto the scene.  There was a long table on the side of the wall with the Commissioners and staffers.   The wall TV screen was on for zooming.  I was the only audience member.   I think  M. did not immediately realize that a meeting was underway, but, he saw me.  I had his attention.   I waved him down and shushed him.  M. became quiet and slinked off to the side.  The storm had passed.

That wasn't good enough for Steve, who stopped the meeting, to yell at M., which was exactly the wrong thing to do.   At that moment, M. was not a head on problem, but Steve was just a couple of  measures behind the beat and he, almost belatedly, had to react.  He had to do something about it.  He said, loudly, "M. there's meeting going on here!"

Thinking about it now, Steve was not moderating or chairing the meeting.  So, Steve's role, as acting executive director, was apparently to be the enforcer.  Oddly, he created a situation that blew up, by acting too forcefully himself.

Steve could have let it go, could have invited M. to join the meeting, could have tried to make a joke, or to be a diplomat.  Instead, Steve paused the meeting, and made M. the center of attention, and then proceed to yell at him.

Of course, predictably, M. yelled right back, mimicking Steve's outburst, shouting, "I don't care about your meeting!  I live here!  I can use this place! I don't see any signs!"  ...and so on.

I ushered him outside.

3) Steve and D.

At the end of the evening of the mentioned NHA Board meeting, Steve and a staffer were at the door and leaving the community building, when D., a tenant walked up the steps to the community room. 

Steve said, "Can I help you?  Our meeting is over. This building is closed."  

A conversation ensued, and D. explained that he was there to read.  D. is a night owl.  Residents have keys.  People go there to watch TV, read the bulletin board, and there's a library.  We'll see if the "clean-up" includes trashing the library, too.  

The upshot of Steve Merritt's personal interactions and apparent animosity toward residents is that he has proposed policies to the the NHA Board, to shut the community room down after 8PM and to establish a key fob system such that access to the community room will be individually determined and controlled by NHA.

Steve is gone, sort of.   But Cheryl Gosman is stepping in as latest acting Director of Housing.  The final approval is with DHCD, who thinks she is not qualified.  The NHA holds that Cheryl has sufficient and appropriate life experience for the position.  No one else was interviewed for the job.

The current clean-up continued with the confiscation of community office equipment, musical instruments, cabinets, rolling carts and other kitchen appliances.   Meetings are scheduled.

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