Mayor Charts New Course for Salem Public Housing

Portrait of Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll

 

What determines the difference between a toxic culture in housing and a healthy community?

Of the many factors that influence the social life in a public housing community, the most significant are the leadership of the local housing authority and the management. And these are influenced by the culture of the municipality and the elected leadership.

We are having a chance to see how a change in the leadership and direction of the housing authority in Salem may influence the life of tenants.

The state Department of Housing and Community Development named Kim Driscoll, the Mayor of Salem, to be the Governor-appointed board member of the Salem Housing Authority, and late in 2018 the appointment became effective. As mayor, Kim Driscoll is able to control the composition of the five-person board. The balance of the board of the housing authority is determined by the mayor who can appoint two members of her choosing, while the mayor selects a member from candidates proposed by the tenants association and another from candidates proposed by the labor council.


The transition begins

The long-serving Executive Director, Carol McGowan retired, and Mayor Driscoll became a member of the Salem Housing Authority board late in 2018. Thus began a dramatic change.

By July, 2019, following the resignations of three board members, the mayor and her three appointees formed a majority of the board. John Boris remained as chair.

During the transition period from December 2018 through July, 2019, the Salem housing community was beset by conflict---conflict among tenants, conflict between tenants and management, and conflict between tenants and the board, and pressures from former tenants and concerned citizens.

Housing authority board meetings saw displays of anger, frustration, and disrespect. In one building, it seemed that everyone was living with fear and distrust, with reports of bullying and mobbing.

Tenants assisted in the search for a new executive director, helping the search committee to narrow the selection down to two excellent candidates from the original field of 16. At the public meeting of the housing authority in July, 2019, at which the two finalists answered questions, the board unanimously voted to offer the position to Cathy Hoog PHM, LMHC, LMFT. She is passionate about community mental health. As executive director, she had transformed the physical and social setting of the North Andover Housing Authority. As the transtition to new leadership continues, we will see how the housing community responds.


Interview of Mayor Kim Driscoll

On June 28, 2019, I was privileged to interview Mayor Driscoll about her ideas and perspectives about ways to prevent bullying and develop a healthy community life.

Halberstadt

When bullying emerges and creates a culture of mistrust, fear, retaliation, pain, and harm, the community becomes toxic. People try to get each other evicted and it is not a happy scene for anyone.

How can landlords, managers, and tenants work to prevent and overcome bullying in multifamily housing?

Driscoll

Sure. Thank you for the question and certainly for the opportunity to at least share some of my thinking on this and to help in these circumstances, I think anyplace where you have bullying going on, in a schoolyard or a public setting, or in a housing development, it can be really problematic and really complex in how we are going to address it.

From the standpoint of having a really healthy culture, of having a community that wants to embrace tolerance and respect and the notion that is at the least civil and at the most sympathetic.

When you don't have that situation in a housing development in particular it becomes toxic, really early, if you are not addressing it.

If you know they're having this challenge, that's the reason you have to get some help to create a healthier system within the housing development.

To bring people together to talk about the expectations for behavior in housing common areas and to put folks in a position where they feel safe. There almost has to be a zero tolerance policy for people where they have to share space where they are living and hopefully move to a place where people are happy and you're not having to pay attention to bullying that leads to that toxic environment.

Halberstadt

Mayor, you are now part of the SHA, and

Driscoll

I'm on the board

Halberstadt

and that as a member of the board you have a philosophy that is positive and [forward looking.]

I'm hoping that this transition that you are leading will lead to a healthy community and this effort by the Salem Housing Authority (SHA) can be an example that will provide leadership to other communities.

Mayor Driscoll, if Salem overcomes bullying in public housing, this example can provide leadership and goals for others to follow.
You have extensive experience in urban housing. What works to avoid and resolve conflict and build a healthy community?

Driscoll

I think it is everybody's job to build a healthy community and work to try to resolve conflict.

It needs to be really clear what is bullying.

It's important for folks to know what is bullying, you can have a disagreement with somebody, you may have an exchange that's not positive. But when you have sustained interactions that are negative, particularly when there is an imbalance of  power, or unsafe, or violent, or aggressive behavior, you really want to make sure that we're being thoughtful and taking that type of behavior seriously.

And people need to report it and be aware that there is a process in place so that you can report that kind of behavior and ideally a culture where people know what behavior is expected of them and where bullying and aggressive behavior are called out and that folks are held accountable for their actions.

So in the circumstances we have at the housing authority, our goal is to get that culture in place where it is healthy, where obviously people feel safe, where they also feel empathy for their neighbors and can communicate about what is not and bring people together to reinforce positive behavior and hold people accountable for what is not positive behavior, that's contributing to that toxic environment or certainly leading one to feel bullied. No one ever wants to feel bullied. And we've got to develop a relationship where folks can share what is going on in the situation.

Starting off, it's easier if you're not in a situation where you've got negative behaviors that are coming to the forefront all the time. Now that [we have a toxic situation that] seems to be happening, we [need to] take a conscious, intentional action to change that.

Halberstadt

It's a challenge.

Driscoll

Absolutely

Halberstadt

Because, at least in one building, there is a very difficult circumstance. I've seen in some of the SHA meetings, people almost throwing things, angry and frustrated when instead they need to come together and listen to each other.

Driscoll

I think we're trying to be mindful that given the number of  occupants in the building a small number of people in the building are feeling that they are at each others' throats, not to say that even that small number [is OK] when we really want to be on top of it...

Halberstadt

One is too much.

Driscoll

You got it, exactly. So bringing in some external help, because it's a hard thing for staff to deal with if they aren't trained, most people just want it to go away. but we really have to get to a deeper understanding.
In some instances there could be mental health challenges, or other contributing factors---not an excuse or a justification---but other contributing factors  that you may not be trained to deal with as a staff member, so bringing in some external mediation services and really contributing to a culture where people know what is expected and are held accountable for actions that are not positive and contributing to those expectations is really really critical.

Halberstadt

What kinds of contributing factors?

Driscoll

Health concerns. Senior living location, anyplace where there is a large collection of people that have to get along, and where this is their home.

Halberstadt

There is no place to go to. And it is different from the outside world where if you don't like the neighbors, you ignore them. But if you are neighbors in the same building and fighting constantly, it's not a happy solution.

Driscoll

And you don't feel it is a safe haven, so to speak. So it needs to be dealt with head on. And again, you wouldn't want anyone to have an experience that you wouldn't want yourself, right? That's always the goal.

Halberstadt

What do you see as the root causes of the bullying and toxic atmosphere in public housing? And what are your ideas about how to address the underlying problems?

Driscoll

I think that is a good question. There are many causes, it is multi-dimensional. Everybody comes from different situations, with different backgrounds, different biases they may have, so it's hard to say it is one root cause so it's really hard to determine or call out one thing that may contribute to someone who is bullying someone else.

And how to contain that once that happens if you don't have the right qualifications, it can be really difficult.

It's difficult to say what is the root cause exactly because it might be multiple causes, not just personal between two individuals or some inherent biases that they bring to the circumstances.

And the second part of your question, is?

Halberstadt

How do we address it?

Mayor Driscoll

I think there's lots of good examples out there, some of them are being utilized within our existing housing properties.

And I think a code of conduct when people move in and it is regularly updated and is contributed to by the people who live there is [necessary].

[And then, everyone needs to be] constantly being reminded of what it is to be a good neighbor if you are in a housing authority property or just living in the community, right?

What it means to be a good neighbor. What it means to enjoy being thoughtful or empathetic to the  people that live with you.

And if that's not the case, where do you report it, and who do you go to who do I tell if you are feeling threatened, and is that OK?

Someone who is acting aggressively, creating fear in somebody else, that fear is also [preventing] telling someone about it.

We need to have a safe space for where those conversations take place; for people to know where they can report stuff is really critical; and how do we address it and hold the individual accountable. I think communication is critical. That we're not shying away from recognizing this is an issue and not shying away from trying to address it when we see it.

Halberstadt

And avoid the fear of retaliation.

Mayor Driscoll

For sure.

Halberstadt

In Charter Street unfortunately we have an example of bullying [and even mobbing].

In my experience, there can be a culture of fear and a gang that rules. Today we have a system where a person is found guilty, we sanction them, and then it will be all right. But that does not change the culture and habits of the community.

Mayor Driscoll

I don't want to overstate what is going on at Charter St. I know some of the details but I can't know all of it, there are people feeling unsettled to say the least and there has been a lot of engagement with the staff and with the police department.

At this point there needs to be a stronger intervention by somebody who is external and who can have conversations with the individuals who are involved one-on-one and bring people together to talk about, how are we going to address this, what is our code of conduct going to look like going forward.
And to avoid this "he said, she said"---and you can tell there is real fear and you can see what is happening. But it is really hard to unpack who is doing what to whom.

[So we need that] intervention, with mediation services, people who are trained.

Halberstadt

You need training to see why a person is aggressive...

Mayor Driscoll

You and I have some experience with this. We don't want to use that term, "bully," loosely, one disagreement isn't being a bully. Sometimes the word can be used in a context that isn't correct.

Hopefully, when things get to a point where you need some external work, as a community we have agencies we can call in and help. And get back to a point in time when people can be civil to each other and people can feel safe and not threatened and be able to enjoy where they are living without fear of retribution, retaliation, or any kind of abuse or aggression from anybody else.

Halberstadt

But when you have people from many backgrounds, cultures and issues, and one of the problems is when people move into housing they are at loose ends, so everybody wants to make others follow their model of a community...

Mayor Driscoll

And moving can be a traumatic experience, particularly if you have been in one place for a long time and you come into a new situation. there's got to be anxieties and challenges.

Halberstadt

Public housing is very different.

Mayor Driscoll

So creating a culture, where we know there are going to be issues and we know that people will annoy each other, and how do we address that.
How do we set the stage so we can have those conversations without being threatening or aggressive and reinforcin. [And encourage] a positive culture that we know can go a long way towards preventing either negative attacks or feelings being hurt with respect to how we're addressing issues that are naturally going to arise.

Halberstadt

In one of the Salem Housing Authority board meetings you mentioned the idea of having more communication and tenants participating in creating a code of conduct, normally in housing, the landlord

Mayor Driscoll

the landlord dictates

Halberstadt

In the meetings I've heard people say, "We live here, we want to be respected, this is our home."

And what you are proposing is to bring all of the stakeholders around the table. and try to understand each other.

Mayor Driscoll

Yes, I think there is a chance to do a restart, we have a new director coming on board, there will be a fresh page with somebody new who hopefully will be able to communicate with residents, with tenants about a myriad of isssues. Certainly this is an important one, but there are ways to build community.

Somebody new, everyobody gets a fresh start with the new director, there will be more frequent opportunities for stakeholders to get together. Even when there is disagreement around decisions, that is probably inevitable, peole will understand why, what the rationale is and feel there is at least the mutual respect that is born out of that level of mutual communication.

Halberstadt

Mutual respect is very important.

We've talked mostly about public housing, obviously Charter Street is only one part of public housing.

Mayor Driscoll

Correct

Halberstadt

Do you have any comments about the situation in other public housing and how tenants and management can work with each other?

Mayor Driscoll

I think engagement is another part of the opportunity for us to ask for tenats to tell us how they are feeling and ask them how to tackle issues they may be feeling within their housing unit or within their neighborhood.
We need to engage with tenants on a regular basis, making sure that it is a two-way street, not just us talking to them, but there is an opportunity for them to talk to us.

We at the Salem Housing Authority board have talked about a tenants engagement committee specifically designed to do just that. How do we bring people together to create community? Each of our housing developments has unique needs and [in each we have] an opportunity to get people together whether it is something going on in the development or in our larger city.
Where you feel you have people around you who care about you or that you might want to engage with socially and where there is an opportunity for folks to share each other's company in a different way than they are doing now.

Halberstadt

There are some Section 8 housing, privately owned subsidized housing

  • Pequot Highlands
  • Salem Heights
  • POAH Fairweather

Does the housing authority have any oversight over them?

Mayor Driscoll

Typically no, there maybe some project-based certificates that we are administering. But all those places have management companies that are large enough that they have onsite management teams. ...

There is definitely an opportunity for some of those developments to be doing the same things. Some of those developments have really positive cultures and engage communities and they have really built that, and some I believe have just a landlord-tenant relationship, and don't do a lot of community building.
We'd like to engage more with the family housing. and find out what some of the needs are. Many of those properties are on the outskirts of town, so they are a little bit isolated by their physical location, they are harder to get to, they don't have in-town relations, and we're trying to break down those walls and build stronger relations with those places, for sure.

Halberstadt

Last time you mentioned some community building and discussion groups that you did in Chelsea...

Mayor Driscoll

Thankfully I have worked in a number of communities, we have always tried to have active stakeholder interest in whatever we're doing. We did that in Chelsea, we're doing that here.

[In Salem we want stakeholder engagment for] housing in general, affordable housing in particular and we want to try to think about policies and projects and ways we can possibly influence housing opportunities for people who live here, people who are feeling the crush of rising rents.

[We need to] try to adjust those challenges as a community as part of a community conversation. It feels you only way you make changes that come from the mayor and city council, but its coming from the people who live here.

Halberstadt

Are there options for new building and development?

Mayor Driscoll

We're hoping to leverage, there's some public land where we can create affordable housing opportunities. It's probably been since the late 80s, the last time Salem built 100 percent affordable units like the housing authority. Partly due to the way HUD [the national Department of Housing and Urban Development] has completely changed how they finance public affordable housing now. So there is opportunity for us to consider how to leverage public land --- housing authority and city-owned land--- and help address the housing challenge.

It's awful to have toxic relations within a housing community but I think it's equally awful not to have enough housing and to have a large homeless population and people who are feeling really burdened by the cost of housing in our community.

Anywhere in Greater Boston and nationwide, there's interest in the cost of housing, it keeps rising and people can't keep up with it.

Halberstadt

Unless anyone thinks that Salem is exceptional in regard to bullying, it is all over the country.

Mayor Driscoll

Yes, social discourse now is pretty challenging, in social media, people interactng with each other inn the housing circumstances that we described. How we treat each other, being kind, is a good thing.

Halberstadt

It is a simple thing.

Mayor Driscoll

Yes it is.

Halberstadt

Is there anything else?

Mayor Driscoll


I want to thank you for taking the time and taking the lead, opening up this discussion around what we can do and how we can do a little bit more to address bullying in housing and particularly among senior housing. Because people think of bullying in schools and playground but don't really recognize that more and more older adults are experiencing bullying. And at that time in your life I'd like to think we can create an ecosystem that can be where you not only safe and loved and welcome, and certainly not in a situation that is abusive or where there is aggression.

Halberstadt

It creates too much stress. To be in an unhappy situation, and unhealthy.

Mayor Driscoll

Nobody wants that. So thank you for bringing attention to it and working so hard to try and get solutions.

Halberstadt

Joan Lovely and other legislators have paved the way for me to represent the needs of tenants. I have been gratified by the approach you have taken. You touched on most of the points that the research that we have done indicates need to be addressed. I hope that what you are doing in Salem will be  successful and be an example of what a housing authority can do and how to do it.

Mayor Driscoll

We'll be happy if we can figure it out. We'll put some time and real energy into trying to do it. So thank you, Jerry.

Halberstadt


Thank you, Mayor Driscoll.


This interview took place in Mayor Driscoll's office and was filmed by Mikhail Kazachkov for a documentary about bullying in public and subsidized housing, to be broadcast at a later date by Salem Access TV. The film is being produced by Kazachkov and Halberstadt.

 

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