BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to overhaul public housing is eliciting mixed reaction on Beacon Hill and across the state. The plan would consolidate the state’s 240 housing agencies into six regional authorities.
Patrick says that while the plan will likely be a “heavy political lift,” it addresses the need for change.
Patrick acknowledged that the reforms were prompted by The Boston Globe’s reporting of abuses in several housing authorities. In Chelsea, for instance, the housing director was paid $360,000 a year. Patrick says he paid attention to the revelations.
“They matter,” Patrick said Thursday at a press conference at the State House. “Learning what we have learned about the lack of accountability, about the misrepresentations that were made in Chelsea to the federal government, to the state government.”
Since the scandal, local housing authorities have had to submit to an annual audit. The Patrick administration has also imposed a cap on the salaries of housing directors of $160,000 a year.
Patrick projects that his proposal would enable the state to save tens of millions of dollars. It’s money he would reinvest in public housing.
“This is a proposal that will bring property management of public housing stock into maybe the 20th century, actually, in terms of how outdated this system has been for so many years,” said Jim Stockard, chairman of the Cambridge Housing Authority and a member of the public housing commission convened by Patrick to make recommendations.
The reforms would emulate what happens with private management of apartment complexes, Patrick said. Companies own buildings all over the country, but have personnel on site to respond to residents’ needs.
“We cannot do this without local engagement in a way that is responsive to the needs of the residents in public housing,” Patrick said.
Resistance On Beacon Hill
Senate Republican leader Bruce Tarr issued a statement questioning “whether replacing local housing authorities with larger, centralized bureaucracies represents the best approach.”
The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials is rejecting Patrick’s proposal, saying it will offer its own proposal next week.
Patrick acknowledges that the Legislature will feel pressure from the 240 housing authorities in Massachusetts and their roughly 1,000 board members.
Maintaining Local Control
“We are a very small town, no traffic lights, one general store and about just under 5,000 people,” said Alan Lehotsky, chairman of the Carlisle Housing Authority, one of the smallest housing authorities in the state, at a biweekly meeting Thursday night.
In a way, Carlisle is already doing what the governor wants cities and towns to do: It does not manage or own any housing units. The town has 20 affordable housing units: two privately owned condos and 18 units of senior housing managed by a private company and owned by a community development corporation. The town is planning more housing units, but always with the idea that it won’t own or manage the housing.
You might not expect Carlisle to need affordable housing. After all, it’s in one of the best school districts in the state. But you might be surprised.
“Carlisle is the third highest per capita income town in Massachusetts, but we do have a significant number of people living on retirement funds,” Lehotsky said. “With the downturn in the stock market, they have been hit very hard.”
One in 12 seniors in town makes less than $10,800 a year.
“We may be way better off than a lot of people, but the town of Carlisle has significant issues in terms of keeping people in their homes,” Lehotsky said.
Lehotsky wants to see the details of the governor’s plan.
“I think in general, it’s a good idea,” Lehotsky said. “Certainly for Carlisle it is, because we don’t want to be in the business of managing housing, with the small staff we have and the small number of units. Our strategy has always been to outsource that management anyways.
“As long as the legislation maintains local control over the zoning and siting and development of projects then I think it’s a good thing,” he added.
Patrick said Thursday that towns would maintain that local control. But Lehotsky says the devil is in the details.