State House News Service

Gov. Patrick To Propose Public Housing Overhaul

BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday plans to announce legislation that would radically consolidate oversight and management of the state’s public housing stock into regional entities, eliminating hundreds of locally controlled housing authorities and producing what the administration hopes will be a more efficient, professional organization.

Patrick plans to file a bill to consolidate roughly 240 local housing authorities into six regional authorities, each with an executive director and a nine-member board appointed by the governor. The administration estimates it could save upwards of $10 million a year in administrative costs that could be redirected back into new housing and upkeep of existing units.

The proposal comes in the aftermath of a scandal at the Chelsea Housing Authority where former director Michael McLaughlin was forced to resign after he got caught underreporting his income as $160,000 when he was actually being paid $360,000 a year, more than even the housing director for New York City.

“This bill will simplify and professionalize our public housing system, improving transparency and accountability. We owe the residents and the general public no less,” Patrick said in a statement to the News Service. The governor plans to announce his proposal at a press conference in the State House on Thursday.

Since the state investigation and audit of the Chelsea Housing Authority, the administration has implemented a number of reforms, including capping executive pay at $160,000. The older reforms and new proposal stem from the work of the governor’s Commission on Public Housing Sustainability and Reform.

Proposed in his fiscal 2013 budget last year, the administration has also started withholding funding to housing authorities for units vacant more than 60 days without a waiver and requiring local housing authorities to produce annual, independent audits and a list of the top five management salaries to the Department of the Housing and Community Development.

Patrick’s new proposal would shift ownership, property management, budget control, procurement and all capital investment activities for the 50,000 state-funded and 30,000 federally-funded public housing units under the purview the new regional authorities.

The administration envisions shifting to the new system by July 1, 2014, giving more than a year to transition. All previously enacted reforms would carry over to the new authorities.

“For tenants living in public housing, they will experience very little change,” said Livbeth Heyer, associate director for public housing and rental assistance at DHCD.

Municipalities would retain the option of maintain a local housing board or shift those duties to another board such as a city council, board of selectmen, or planning board to make land-use decisions related to public housing. The local authority would also provide the regional authority with guidance for annual strategic plans for public housing investments in each community.

“The vast majority of what a housing authority does is run a property management business and what we’re talking about is making that business much more efficient and streamlined and therefore more effective so that they can put more money back into the housing,” Heyer said.

Just how the governor’s proposal will be received, however, remains a question.

Sensing the likelihood of a possible movement toward regionalization in the wake of the Chelsea scandal, housing authority officials gathered in March at the State House for their annual luncheon when they said they would not reflexively oppose the idea.

Instead, housing authority directors said they would like to see regionalization done on a voluntary basis, where the local boards remain rooted in communities.

Colleen Doherty, executive director of the Taunton Housing Authority, said at the time that any moves toward regionalization should be decided upon by cities and towns.

“The concern is the end definition of regionalization, if there is no flexibility in it,” she said. “If they are going to lump thousands of units together, that is not going to serve anybody well.”

Some local housing officials, however, see the benefit in centralizing oversight and property management in a smaller bureaucracy that they say would free up resources to hire experts in financing, energy efficiency and other areas that small, local boards can’t provide.

Jeffrey Sacks, a commissioner on the Newton Housing Authority since 1992 and a lawyer at Nixon Peabody specializing in in the area of affordable housing, said he was “encouraged” by the governor’s plan and would be a strong supporter.

“The system we have right now was a great system at the time of the New Deal. The laws, the federal and state public housing system we have, came out of the New Deal and the 240 housing authorities were necessary at that time because the units didn’t exist. Today, it’s completely antiquated and needs to change dramatically,” Sacks told the News Service.

Sacks said the initiative would lead to better service delivery and more efficient use of public dollars for housing. “You can’t possibly bring the level of expertise that our residents deserve when running a system that’s so Balkanized,” Sacks said.

Jim Stockard, a Cambridge Housing Authority board member and curator of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, said it’s important when evaluating the governor’s proposal to distinguish between siting decisions and making sure lawns get cut and roofs repaired.

“There is relatively little, frankly, that benefits, in terms of property management, from local decision making,” said Stockard, adding that housing authorities with an inventory of fewer than 800 to 1,000 units can’t operate efficiently.

Stockard said decisions about where to add housing and whether local residents get preference for Section 8 federal housing should remain under local control.

“I think this system will maintain the appropriate level of local touch,” he said.

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