Cheryl Gosmon cares deeply about the quality of life of Needham’s public housing residents. That’s not just because it’s her job as the new executive director of the Needham Housing Authority, but because of her experience living in the federally subsidized apartments for 12 years.
“It gives me a resident perspective on what it’s like to live here and what expectations are for more,” said Gosmon, who assumed the role in February. “It’s not just managing an agency from a landlord perspective, but keeping in mind what it means for the residents and how to provide a good service for them.”
Gosmon first came to Needham more than 30 years ago. “My oldest son was a student in the Needham public schools via the METCO program. I had a part-time job here that allowed me to drive through town, and I fell in love with Needham,” she said. “The only way at the time I could afford to live in the town was in public housing.” But there was a waiting list, and it was nearly nine years before she was able to move into an apartment on Captain Robert Cook Drive in 1993.
Once there, Gosmon wanted to establish a sense of community. “When I grew up in Mattapan, I grew up in a community, and I didn’t quite feel that in the public housing development, so I was always working toward that,” she said. She became president of the tenants organization, then a Town Meeting member, and later served on the Needham Housing Authority (NHA) Board of Commissioners. “And now that I’m executive director involved in the day-to-day, I can bring all those perspectives together so that, most importantly, my constituents, the residents, are getting what they need.”
Living at Captain Cook, Gosmon worked with other residents to create homework clubs and book clubs. Out of that grew a tutoring and mentoring program supported by the Congregational Church that has grown and evolved, continuing today as Needham Steps Up.
“Education has always been in my mind the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. So that’s why I’m so adamant about promoting those kinds of programs. They are still happening today, I’m very proud of that,” she said. Her two sons both graduated from college, one went on to law school, and she was able to move out of public housing into a condo in Needham in 2006.
The Needham Housing Authority serves more than 500 residents and manages more than 400 apartment units and small homes in two locations, one on the north end of town on Captain Robert Cook Drive and Seabeds Way and the other at the south end on Linden Street and Chambers Street. There also is a home for individuals with special needs on Great Plain Avenue. This year the NHA marks 75 years of providing affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families and individuals.
Gosmon said she took on the executive director role because she wants the residents to have a good experience in Needham. “It’s a wonderful town and is just a great place to live, work and play. Everyone has always been very nice to me in the town. I feel safe here. And I want residents to have that same sense that this is their town and not to be stigmatized by the fact that they live in public housing,” she said. “There are these other pre-conceptions that come along with that, and I want residents to sort of push past that and enjoy what the town has to offer.”
For residents who aren’t familiar with the town’s public housing, Gosmon said, “If I’m going to effect change in how people think about how the Housing Authority operates, and who are the people that they are serving, I think you do that through action. They should be able to observe that the properties are pretty nice, and the residents feel that their voices are heard,” she said. Plans are now underway to redevelop the buildings, many of which were built in the 1960s. “They are outdated, but they’re kept up pretty well.”
Along with well-maintained, safe properties, Gosmon said her vision is that residents have the tools and educational support they need for success. Her 13-member staff provides that service to the residents. “I am very fortunate in this role as a new executive director to have people who are committed to the mission and do a great job.”
She also credits community partners with making a difference in their work. “The Community Council does a lot of outreach, the Center at the Heights does great outreach, Youth & Family Services,” she said. “Our residents participate in events, we have a float in the Fourth of July parade. The Knights of Columbus did a coat drive for us. Storytime Crafts helped us with school bags for children.”
Gosmon feels the town wants the public housing agency to succeed. “Needham is a very generous town and we get a lot of support, and I think that support gives the residents a sense of belonging.”