Safety fears resurface at town complex

By Megan McKee
Globe Correspondent / January 21, 2010

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Six months after a woman was attacked and knocked unconscious just outside her apartment in the Cedar Gardens public housing development in Natick, the woman and other residents say they are still trying to get the Natick Housing Authority to improve safety at the complex.

“I am grateful to have a roof over my head, as is everybody up here,’’ said Jeanne Lavezzo, who was assaulted on a Sunday morning in late June when she took her dog out the back door of her apartment. “But we’re not safe.’’

Lavezzo’s effort has centered on getting replacements for locks at the complex that she and other residents say provide little or no security.

The request has become a rallying point for residents who say the officials who run the authority do not respond adequately to their needs, from security to snow removal. And it comes less than two years after the authority was cited in a state report for losing money by failing to rent vacant apartments quickly enough.

Edward Santos, the authority’s executive director since 1984, said the Natick agency is attempting to make Cedar Gardens safer by placing metal shields over some of the vulnerable locks. However, he said, he believes the residents’ reactions are overblown.

“Everyone has gotten a little crazy with it. It’s a little bit of a hysteria thing,’’ said Santos. He said the real issue is that residents aren’t locking their doors.

Santos said the authority is understaffed but is trying to improve apartment turnaround time.

Selectmen asked Santos to go before them to talk about the assault on Lavezzo and an alleged Peeping Tom at Cedar Gardens, a 260-unit complex occupied by senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Last month he told them the authority has too little money to make improvements to its 600 housing units. But a spokesman for the state agency that oversees housing authorities recently said that the Natick agency could borrow against future funding to pay for replacement locks.

The push for more security and better response by authority employees comes as the town prepares to replace two longtime members of the authority’s board of directors. James White, a board member for 40 years, died a few weeks ago, and Edward Hurst, who has been on the board for about 30 years, isn’t seeking reelection this spring.

The authority was also criticized after a 2008 report by the state auditor’s office, which said it lost out on $276,000 in income between 2005 and 2007 because officials failed to rent vacant apartments within the 21-day window established by the state. The audit found 113 apartments were vacant an average of 161 days.

Santos said the state is now helping train the authority’s maintenance workers to prepare apartments for new occupants more efficiently.

The town’s Housing Authority is an independent agency with some state oversight. The staff oversees day-to-day operations, while the board directs policy issues and appoints the executive director. In Natick, four members of the board are elected and one is appointed by the governor.

Lavezzo, 48, who moved to Cedar Gardens three years ago after she was diagnosed with lupus, was attacked June 26. The assault left one side of her face, as well as a shoulder, badly bruised and swollen. Her rotator cuff was torn and though she’s been through 4 1/2 months of physical therapy, she’s still in chronic pain. No arrests were made and Natick police are continuing the investigation.

Santos and members of the Housing Authority board said they were unaware of the attack until Lavezzo attended its Oct. 22 meeting with four police officers to press for better security at the complex.

Charles Emanuelli, who has been on the board for four years, said the board should have known about the incident long before the October meeting. But he said communication between Santos and the board has improved.

Lavezzo said she reported the assault at the Housing Authority’s office the day after the attack, the same day that police Lieutenant Brian Grassey said he posted an entry containing details of the assault on the Natick department’s website. According to the log entry, four police officers, one detective, a fire engine, and an ambulance all responded to the 9:51 a.m. call.

“It was clearly a serious event,’’ said Grassey.

The attack on Lavezzo and the authority’s reaction, residents say, are symbolic of years of inattention to their concerns.

“We’re not asking for tennis courts,’’ said Mary Reis, who lives in a tidy first-floor apartment at Cedar Gardens, and relies on supplemental oxygen to breathe. “We’re asking for shoveling, for locks, for outside lights . . . that’s his job, to do it within his budget,’’ she said of Santos.

Cedar Gardens residents said that during the New Year’s weekend storm, maintenance workers didn’t start shoveling until Sunday afternoon, even though the snow started Friday.

Santos disputed the assertion.

“That’s probably not true. People at Cedar Gardens think Cedar Gardens is the only property we have,’’ he said.

The authority has seven other properties and seven maintenance workers to deal with upkeep, he said.

In a recent interview, Santos said replacing locks isn’t the only capital improvement needed at Cedar Gardens. For example, he said, the complex needs new roofs. Santos also said he did not know where to apply at the state to replace the locks.

A spokesman for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which oversees local housing authorities, said the agency didn’t know there was a security issue until contacted by the Globe this month. Philip Hailer, the department’s spokesman, said that if the Natick authority doesn’t have money to pay for the locks, it can ask the state development agency for clearance to borrow against its future funding.

Richard MacPherson, president of the Natick Lions Club, is running for one of the Housing Authority board’s seats in the March 30 election. He said he has never been politically involved but was compelled to run after hearing from so many concerned residents. He said he doesn’t understand why there are so many vacant apartments, especially in this economy.

His opponent on the ballot, former selectwoman Erica Ball, said she wants the authority to be responsive to the tenants, provide a safe environment, and maximize the available units.

Charlene Foss, wife of Town Moderator Frank Foss, is running unopposed for the other seat on the board. She didn’t return calls seeking a comment.

Lavezzo said she and her neighbors are desperate for someone to help, and have contacted Middlesex County Sheriff James DiPaola for assistance. He offered inmate labor to change the locks for free.

“We’re all low income so we get treated as second-class citizens,’’ said Lavezzo. “My main goal is to change this and to not have anyone else get hurt.’’

Megan McKee can be reached at