BOSTON - Public housing tenants and civil rights advocates are raising questions about the language and conduct of a lawyer with the Boston Housing Authority after 25 Investigates reviewed internal emails and audio recordings obtained from the agency through a public records request.
The records request sought to gain more information about two families at the South Street apartments in Jamaica Plain who received eviction notices over the summer.
In more than one email with other staff, BHA lawyer Jay Koplove refers to the male partner of a female tenant as the "baby daddy" -- a term at least one administrator at the public housing agency later described as "offensive."
Questionable eviction notice
Angela Dicenso says she cannot care for her 6-year-old daughter, who's non-verbal and living with autism, without the help of the girl's father, Daniel Chaparro.
"She has a sensory issue, so it's hard for her to stay still and not to climb," said Dicesno.
But when Chaparro loudly complained to a worker at South Street about a lack of screens on the family's first-floor windows, he says he was threatened with a no trespass order and Dicesno received an eviction notice.
"I was just confused. I was really confused," said Dicenso.
Dicenso was granted a grievance hearing in front of a panel of BHA employees and residents in July. The audio of that hearing reveals Dicenso faced a long line of questioning by Koplove who was representing the housing authority.
"Baby daddy?" A lawyer for the Boston Housing Authority wasn't happy when we asked him about his choice of words we found in city emails talking about tenants. Full report on @boston25 at 10 #25Investigates pic.twitter.com/lgGspXsNxt— Eric Rasmussen (@Eric_Rasmussen) October 3, 2018
"Do you have a problem with entering into an agreement under which your, your baby daddy would agree not to yell at staff?" asked Koplove.
Koplove also seemed to blame the tenant for the lack of screens on her windows, even though they are required by state law.
"It's been a couple of years and when I called the work order line, they say not to keep calling for the screens. They say put one in," said Dicenso.
Koplove replied, "So, you called just once in 2015 and once in 2018? Why didn't you call a million times?"
"Baby daddy" emails
The administrative panel voted unanimously to continue pursuing action against Dicenso in court, but after 25 Investigates started asking questions about her case, internal emails show Koplove began asking staff for more information about the case.
In one email dated July 11, Koplove asked a property manager about Dicenso and Chaparro, writing "Where did she say the baby daddy lived?"
Again on July 31, Koplove wrote "This involves the female tenant's 'baby daddy.'"
"It's very insulting," said Chaparro after 25 Investigates shared the emails with him and Dicenso.
Other advocates for low-income tenants also say the term can be offensive.
"It's a pejorative term that you are specifically using because the population you deal with on a day-to-day basis... are the people that no one cares about," said Sophia Hall, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.
25 Investigates emailed Koplove and the Boston Housing Authority to request an interview, but a week after no one responded, investigative reporter Eric Rasmussen attempted to speak with Koplove on the street outside the BHA offices.
When asked why he used the term "baby daddy" regarding a tenant who was facing eviction, Koplove said "You're looking for a story. You should go find one" and refused to answer any other questions.
The BHA later provided an interview with its deputy administrator Gail Livingston.
"I think it's really an unfortunate turn of phrase," said Livingston. "I personally find it offensive."
But Livingston also defended her attorney's conduct, calling it a "question of style."
In another internal email, the BHA's chief of staff replied to Koplove, writing "Can we please stop referring to people as the baby daddy?"
A question of fairness
After 25 Investigates continued asking questions about the justification for the eviction notice given to Dicenso and the alleged conduct of Chaparro, Koplove emailed staff again in July, writing "Fox 25 is on this case too so we need some real evidence that he violated the lease."
Others also question the BHA's justification for threatening to evict Dicenso in the first place.
"To me, the interest of a person being able to keep their family safe and have a roof over their heads versus living out in the streets is always going to trump some minor altercation," said Hall.
Ultimately, Dicenso was not evicted and the housing authority finally installed screens in the windows of her unit, but she questions whether she would have had the same outcome without the public scrutiny of her case by 25 Investigates.
"It was very intimidating," said Dicenso. "I had never been through the process before, so I just tried my best to stick up for myself and stick up for my rights."
The housing authority disputes that its attorney's words and actions raise questions about the fairness of the eviction process.
"We're always concerned about being fair," said Livingston. "We house the most vulnerable and poorest people in this city and we do a very good job of it."
Twenty-two eviction cases have been heard by a BHA grievance panel in 2018. Members of the panel denied the housing authority's requests to take tenants to court in five of those cases, but the BHA says it dismissed several other eviction cases before they made it to a hearing and that evictions are only pursued as a last resort.
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