CHELSEA - Francine Dorrance, a single mother, was already broke, unemployed, and struggling to recover from a nervous breakdown in summer 2006 when the Chelsea Housing Authority moved to evict her over $276 in unpaid rent.
After a judge approved the eviction, Dorrance became homeless. It would be almost five years before she would again have a permanent address.
But Dorrance’s misfortune was a boon to the housing authority official who oversaw her eviction. Five days after a constable removed Dorrance’s belongings, Jacqueline Matos, a housing manager for the authority, moved into the vacant apartment. Matos still lives there, continuing to pay just $25 a month in rent, a small fraction of what Dorrance paid.
“When I saw Jackie moving in there . . . that killed me,’’ said Dorrance, 46, who now lives in another city with her youngest child.
Matos’s takeover of the apartment - and the ability of her two adult children to obtain their own subsidized apartments - reflects what some residents say is a troubling pattern of unequal treatment.
A Globe examination of court and housing records and interviews with current and former tenants found cases in which insiders received benefits at the expense of the low-income residents the housing authority was supposed to serve.
Former housing director Michael E. McLaughlin, who resigned last month following news reports that he deliberately concealed his $360,000 pay package, liked to boast that he collected every penny of rent tenants owed, sending threatening letters for even small unpaid bills.
But he was generous to inner-circle people such as Matos, whose former husband, James McNichols, is the authority accountant now under investigation for allegedly shredding work documents and authorizing more than $200,000 in questionable payments to McLaughlin on the day McLaughlin resigned.
The Chelsea Housing Authority is the only public housing authority in the state known to give a housing manager an apartment and to charge almost no rent, according to federal and state housing officials. While low-income people are told they could wait up to two years for a subsidized apartment to become available, Matos and two other housing managers live in public housing units for just $300 per year under a program that authority officials say improves tenant safety.
“That’s wrong,’’ said Thomas Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “If they are in there, they should be paying the same rent as any other resident should be paying.’’
Some tenants frowned on the deals, but the housing authority said federal and state housing officials cleared the arrangements for Matos, who lives in Dorrance’s former three-bedroom townhouse with a grassy yard, one of the nicer spots in public housing, and for two other managers, Alexandra Jimenez and Nyomi Peña-Hurley. Each earns around $50,000 a year, according to housing records, and pays $25 a month rent in exchange for running monthly crime watch meetings, monitoring the area, and working extra hours on public safety.
Judy Weber, the court-appointed temporary receiver now in charge of the authority, said that state and federal regulators approved the agreements for all three housing managers and that it was part of a practice that began in 2002. “It was a judgment made by the authority and the regulators at the time, and it was approved,’’ Weber said.
The state Department of Housing and Community Development confirmed that that it approved a subsidized apartment for one Chelsea manager, but agency spokeswoman Mary-Leah Assad said officials are reviewing that decision.
Matos said she did not seek to evict Dorrance to take her apartment and pointed out that a Chelsea District Court judge approved the final eviction. Housing officials said Matos had asked for a different apartment, but was assigned to Dorrance’s.
“It’s a safety issue, and it’s good to have a housing manager on the property,’’ Matos said in an interview. “It just makes things better all around. Ever since I moved there, it’s been much more quiet.’’
Matos moved into Dorrance’s former apartment just as Matos was separating from her husband, according to court records, and at the time the couple owned a Billerica home that later sold for $289,000.
Matos’s two children later got their own apartments in public housing. Her son, Angel Ortiz, 28, stayed there until 2009, when he was charged with raping a 12-year-old girl in Northborough. The charge was initially dismissed in lower court, but a Worcester County grand jury indicted him this month on several charges related to the alleged crime, including child rape. He is to be arraigned next week in Worcester Superior Court.
Housing officials say Matos’s children applied and waited like everyone else, but the state said the Chelsea Housing Authority should have cleared it first with the Department of Housing and Community Development.
Meanwhile, several tenants say they lived under constant threat of eviction during McLaughlin’s 11-year tenure. One woman said the housing authority tried to throw her out after she discovered that officials had overcharged her $22,000. Another faced eviction for not paying a $173 extermination fee. An elderly woman was given three days to vacate a two-bedroom apartment because it was too big for her, sending her to the hospital in a panic.
Housing authorities are allowed to evict tenants over small debts, but, among lawyers who defend poor people facing eviction, Chelsea has a reputation for being particularly aggressive. Despite federal recommendations to housing officials to avoid evicting people over minor debts and to remember that their mission to provide “decent, safe, and sanitary’’ housing for low-income people, Chelsea has raised the threat of eviction over debts as small as $108.15.
The Chelsea Housing Authority “pursued their interests in a very aggressive manner that many tenants experienced as intimidating,’’ said William Berman, a law professor who supervises the Suffolk University Law School’s housing clinic, which has provided free legal aid to tenants in about 100 cases against the housing authority in the last decade. “Some tenants found it difficult to pursue legitimate grievances against the housing authority due to the imbalance of power and the specter of retaliation.’’
Until McLaughlin’s abrupt resignation four days after the Globe reported his salary, the Chelsea Housing Authority was held up as a success story. Almost every year since McLaughlin took over in 2000, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development showered the authority with awards that brought hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonus money while reducing the number of required inspections.
McLaughlin did not respond to a request for comment, but in an October interview, he said he had transformed a badly managed agency into one that collected “100 percent’’ of the rent, including unpaid debts dating to the 1960s. He said he saved $10 million by cutting the staff in half and restricting spending.
“The housing authority is in fantastic shape,’’ said McLaughlin, a longtime Democratic power broker. “That’s cold, hard fact.’’
Now, as the FBI investigates whether McLaughlin illegally diverted federal funds for his own use, his tenure is undergoing a dramatic reappraisal. The entire board of directors resigned under pressure from Governor Deval Patrick, clearing the way for the court-appointed receiver to review all the agency’s policies and procedures.
“From the outside, things looked very good over there,’’ said HUD spokeswoman Rhonda Siciliano. She said her agency’s past praise for Chelsea had been based on a rigorous inspection process, but she admitted: “Obviously there were some things we weren’t aware of. We’re in the process of reviewing that situation.’’
Chelsea is one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, with a median household income of less than $40,000. Turnover is so rare among the 1,450 public housing units that officials closed some waiting lists with hundreds of applicants two years ago.
Hawa Muya, 21, a Somali refugee who had been living in a shelter with her three children and mother-in-law for four months, left the housing authority offices with bad news when she came looking for a home one day in November.
“They said I could wait two years or one year,’’ Muya said glumly.
Tenants who already live in public housing say that the backlog of demand gives officials an advantage in disagreements, because they can evict tenants without fear that the apartment would stand empty. Several tenants said the authority came down hard against those who challenged them, even when those disputes turned into costly legal battles.
In 2002, tenant Darlene Scuturio turned to the state for help when she faced eviction over the housing authority’s new pet policy. Scuturio asked for a waiver to keep her dog, Ginger, who was over the 20-pound weight limit, saying the pet alleviated stress from her depression and anxiety disorder.
After the authority refused, she filed an antidiscrimination complaint. Then, according to court records, the authority moved to evict her based on alleged lease violations from years earlier.
The state attorney general filed a lawsuit accusing the housing authority of discriminating against Scuturio and retaliating against her by moving for eviction. The state later filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of another tenant, Dianna Stephenson.
In separate settlements, the authority had to pay $78,000 in damages to Stephenson and $20,000 to Scuturio, and housing officials had to adopt policies and undergo training on serving tenants with disabilities.
But by then, Scuturio had suffered an emotional collapse under the constant pressure. She filed for bankruptcy, so she never saw the money, and left public housing to stay with a friend. Later, she had to give up her dog.
“It’s sad,’’ said her brother, Scott Scuturio. “In the end they won.’’
An elderly woman had a similar experience, winning the fight with the authority with the help of a lawyer, but in the end leaving Chelsea public housing.
In 2007, Joan Embree was told that she had to surrender her two-bedroom because it was too big for her. If she did not move, officials said, her $236-a-month rent would more than double.
Embree had lived on Exeter Street for almost 30 years, near relatives who fed and cared for her. She resisted moving to the unfamiliar high-rise that officials had selected, saying she felt it was unsafe. But that summer, Matos told her the movers were coming in three days to take her there, to an apartment she had never seen.
Bedlam ensued. Embree’s elderly sister confronted Matos, who reported the sister to the Chelsea police. Embree suffered a panic attack that landed her in the hospital.
Embree’s lawyer, Betsey Crimmins, threatened to go to court, halting the move. Embree said she later agreed to move to another building when a spot opened, then balked when she visited and spotted cockroaches. Instead, she moved in with relatives until she could get housing in another city.
“She was an anxious woman to begin with,’’ Crimmins said. “It definitely caused her psychological distress.’’
A third tenant gave up her claim that the authority owed her $22,000 in rent overcharges to avoid losing her home.
Milagros Irizarry said the authority tried to evict her after she told them in 2007 that they had overcharged her $22,000 in rent over several years, according to records in Chelsea District Court. Tenants pay a portion of their income in rent, typically 30 percent, but Irizarry said the housing authority incorrectly counted adoption subsidies as earnings.
Housing officials denied the overpayment in court records, but acknowledged they offered Irizarry three months’ free rent to settle the dispute. After she refused, housing officials accused Irizarry of allowing her daughter to live with her in the past without permission, and moved to evict her. In court documents, Irizarry said that a housing official threatened to “see to it she never lived in housing again.’’
As a trial, and the possibility of eviction, loomed in 2009, Irizarry dropped the claim so that she could stay in public housing, said her lawyer, Stephen Callahan of the Suffolk University Law School housing clinic.
Once a tenant is kicked out of public housing, he said, it is difficult to get housing anywhere else, even in a homeless shelter.
“It’s kind of a housing death penalty,’’ Callahan said.
Francine Dorrance would be homeless for several years, after a judge ordered her evicted in 2006. Dorrance, who suffers from mental illness and lives on disability, had lived in public housing for many years and had clashed with McLaughlin’s staff before. With a lawyer’s aid, Dorrance successfully fought eviction in 2004 after she withheld rent to force them to make repairs in her apartment.
But in 2006, she did not think she needed a lawyer. In court documents, she said her disability check never arrived, so she could not pay her rent. She signed an agreement pledging to pay on time, but the next month the check was missing again.
Within days, she was on the street. The state had already placed her two daughters in her mother’s care because of unrelated issues, Dorrance said, and her son went to live with his father.
Finally, this year, she was able to find an affordable apartment in another city in Massachusetts, though it is a struggle. She has regained custody of her youngest daughter; the others are adults.
“When they evicted me, my whole life was ruined,’’ said Dorrance. “Do you know how it feels to walk on the street having nowhere to go?’’
A month after Dorrance was evicted, the housing authority filed criminal fraud charges against her, saying she had concealed income and owed thousands of dollars in rent. A year and five months later, the charges were dismissed.
Dorrance quietly went away. She did not say a word about the housing authority, until the Globe requested an interview.
“I was tired of fighting,’’ she said. “And who was going to believe me? They had so much pull, I felt; nobody is going to listen to me.’’Sean P. Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.