Shooting renews debate about public housing
Officials worry about mixing elderly, disabled
Housing officials call it “gray flight,’’ when elderly residents of public developments move away from younger neighbors, who often suffer from chronic mental illness or substance-abuse problems.
Those same younger residents are also sometimes not satisfied when slotted among older ones.
“In many cases, neither group is happy about it,’’ said Thomas Connelly, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Housing & Redevelopment Officials. “It’s not appropriate for either one.’’
State and federal laws dictate they live side-by-side in public housing developments, but in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at a Brighton apartment complex for elderly and disabled residents last week, allegedly by a gunman with a history of mental illness, housing officials are renewing criticism of the laws.
Any such policy is inherently flawed, they say, placing two vulnerable populations with different needs and often conflicting lifestyles into an uneasy mix.
Advocates for the mentally ill say such concerns are misguided. People with mental illness are less likely to commit violent crimes than the general population, they say, and interact well with neighbors in all types of housing. With adequate support, they lead stable and productive lives.
“These incidents are very rare,’’ said mental health advocate Howard Trachtman. “There are many crimes committed by people without mental illness, and you don’t hear about all the people [with mental health problems who are] doing well in mixed complexes.’’
Without reserved spots in public housing for the elderly and disabled, younger people with disabilities would struggle to find subsidized apartments, advocates say. Nationally, the number of public housing units has declined sharply over the past 15 years, and little is being built.
But for many housing officials, the shooting in Brighton on Wednesday morning, which forced a frantic evacuation and led to a tense standoff with police, realized their deepest fears. Authorities say Randy Moore, a 54-year-old with a history of mental illness, shot his downstairs neighbor, William Thomas, 75, in the chest as he sat inside his apartment in his wheelchair.
Moore later fired multiple rounds at police, nearly hitting one officer in the head. After speaking at length with a crisis negotiator, Moore surrendered without incident.
He pleaded not guilty to murder charges on Thursday, and it was not clear what precipitated the violence.
After learning of the shooting, Bill McGonagle, the head of the Boston Housing Authority, said Moore was a diagnosed schizophrenic who had lived in city housing for many years, and said Thomas’s death underlined the risks of placing residents with serious mental illness alongside elderly residents.
McGonagle denounced laws that put the elderly and disabled together in the same development as poor public policy, a criticism echoed by housing officials across the state. Older residents frequently complain that the younger residents are disruptive, they said, and draw a bad element to the apartments.
“There isn’t a housing authority out there that hasn’t had issues in these mixed developments,’’ said Steven Beauregard, executive director of the New Bedford Housing Authority. “You have alcoholics and drug addicts, and they can make the elderly very nervous. Historically, we’ve had problems.’’
Under state and federal law, non-elderly people with disabilities are given priority for a percentage of units in state- and federally-funded developments. Under a state law passed in 1995, they are given priority for 13.5 percent of units.
At the federal level, the percentage can be much higher. In 1988 the Fair Housing Act was amended to prohibit discrimination based on disability, and four years later Congress began allowing housing authorities to reserve certain housing for specific groups to help people with disabilities to rent affordable housing.
HUD reviews the plans to make sure they meet general housing needs, but will consider requests to adjust ratios in mixed developments or to phase out the other group altogether.
In New Bedford, for example, officials convinced HUD to convert two developments that had housed disabled residents to all-elderly, and they are now seeking a third waiver.
Yet HUD denied Boston’s request several years ago to reduce the 30 percent of non-elderly residents in developments such as the Brighton complex, saying it was not warranted.
Younger disabled residents can apply to any type of public housing, but with openings scarce, they often accept whatever becomes available.
“For all our programs there’s an extensive waiting list,’’ said Lydia Agro, the public affairs director for the Boston Housing Authority.
In the Hub, elderly tenants last month in South Boston complained that younger neighbors were causing a variety of disruptions, and last fall tenants in the Lower Mills Apartments in Dorchester said they lived in fear of their younger neighbors, saying drug use, violence, and prostitution were regular occurrences.
A HUD spokeswoman said the 70-30 ratio, which is in effect for all 34 elderly housing developments run by the BHA, is needed to meet the “high demand for non-elderly disabled housing in this area.’’
The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development said in a statement it had an “obligation and a responsibility’’ to provide appropriate housing for those with disabilities.
“In addition, resident safety in all Massachusetts public housing facilities is of the utmost importance to DHCD,’’ said Mary-Leah Assad, a department spokeswoman. “Disabled individuals do not inherently cause a safety risk to the elderly population.’’
The department also spends $350,000 annually on service coordinators at developments to promote better relations between the groups.
Even housing officials who oppose the policy say that conflicts are relatively rare and that those that do arise could happen in any residential setting.
“People with mental illness are going to live next to someone,’’ said Ray Mariano, who directs the Worcester Housing Authority. “And no matter what you do, there are people in elderly buildings who don’t belong there. In any community, things like this can happen.’’
Yet as the city’s mayor throughout most of the 1990s, Mariano asked federal housing officials to allow the city to establish elderly-only housing and said those developments have since proven safe and successful.
“It is always easier to separate the elderly,’’ Mariano said. But elderly residents in mixed developments did not report additional complaints, he said.
Mariano said staff members at the apartments work closely with residents with mental illness to make sure they are doing well but said people occasionally refuse to take their medication despite the urging.
Mental health advocates said the housing debate misses a broader point: that those with severe psychiatric disorders need personal care to live independently.
“No matter what the housing situation, they need to have wraparound services to manage the illness,’’ said Lynda Cutrell of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “There have to be eyes on the individual.’’
Peter Schworm can be reached at email@example.com.