For the past 16 years, Jean Fulco has lived in Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) properties – virtually every one of them, she said – and put up with roaches, no heat, no hot water and units falling apart on top of her.
During that time, she and her young daughter just dealt with it – figuring that’s just the way it was in public housing; that they couldn’t and shouldn’t expect anything better.
The roaches in their bed were just a fact of life, she thought.
Boiling water on the stove so her daughter could take a warm shower was just the way things were, she thought.
Having to protect their food from an onslaught of mice and rats was just part of life in Housing, she reasoned.
The fact that the CHA had no money to fix any of these problems or help her out was just part of a system she had accepted.
Then she learned about the crimes alleged against former Executive Director Michael McLaughlin, and that caused her to put two and two together.
All along there had been money.
It’s just that he had taken it.
Fulco, 47, and Mildred Valentin were two CHA residents whose outrage translated into a unique and unprecedented situation where a government corruption case was afforded presentations by a new class of victims – in this case, residents of the CHA who lived with horrid conditions while McLaughlin made off with exorbitant salaries and other luxuries. Having been granted that unique status, Fulco and Valentin stood up in open court and spoke for all the CHA residents about what they and others endured while McLaughlin lived the good life.
“I lived in three different apartments in the CHA since McLaughlin became the director,” Fulco told Judge Doug Woodlock in Federal Court on July 17th. “I have an 8-year-old daughter and we just dealt with it because we couldn’t afford anything better and I thought this was just the way things were…We had roaches in our beds and my daughter would wake up with them in her blanket. She has skin problems now because of the roaches. They never did anything about them. We had mice all the time. Nothing in the apartments worked properly. We had cold water all the time and no heat in the winter. I would have to turn on the stove and go into the kitchen with my daughter to get warm.
“Sometimes I had to heat up water on the stove so my daughter could take a shower before going to school,” she continued. “There was no hot water and no one to fix the problem. Sometimes she would be late because it just took so long to get enough water heated up. We were always told there was no money to fix it. Now I find out there was money, but it wasn’t being used for residents. McLaughlin was taking the money. I have been so depressed not being able to bring my daughter up in decent housing conditions. Now, I know I didn’t have to live like that.”
Fulco told Judge Woodlock that the tenants suffered greatly, and that they wanted restitution from McLaughlin so the CHA could fix up the conditions that still exist as a result of his criminal conduct.
Valentin – who lives in the Margolis Elderly Housing Development – said she spoke for all the tenants who were too afraid to speak up for themselves due to years of retaliation by the McLaughlin Administration on those who were vocal.
“When rats, roaches and bedbugs were getting into our beds, and if we complained, we would get threatened with eviction,” she told the judge. “All along, McLaughlin lined his own pockets. Repairs were never made, so everything got worse…McLaughlin was in a position to take advantage of us – especially the elderly and disabled. He was able to take the money and to silence us…He took advantage of us to enrich himself instead of spending the money on repairs.”
This week, Fulco said she was nervous in speaking to the court, but it was something she felt she had to do. The outrage had built up so much when she heard last February that his plea deal might allow him to get away without jail time, that she didn’t care if there were consequences.
“Look at it, he still only got three years,” she said in front of her Central Avenue apartment on Monday. “Look at this place and what he did to it. Three years is nothing. I know people right here in Chelsea who violate their probation and get more time than that – get charged with felonies and ruin their lives. More people need to speak up so we can get this place repaired. If no one speaks up, nothing will change. If we could get everyone in here to stand up, things would change.”