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January 15, 2013

Statewide housing authority plan draws fire

GHA chief, others critical of governor's merger proposal

Local and state housing officials are critical of what they say will be a crippling loss of local control under a sweeping proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to consolidate the state’s public system for low-income and senior housing.

The governor last week filed a bill that would abolish all 240 local housing authorities and boards — such as the Gloucester, Manchester, Rockport and Essex housing authorities — and instead create six regional ones in an attempt to get a better handle on a system that oversees approximately 80,000 units statewide.

“This bill will simplify and professionalize our public housing system,” Patrick said in a statement, “improving transparency and accountability.”

The administration has also been trying to improve the management of local housing authorities, instituting reforms such as withholding money from housing authorities that have units vacant for more than 60 days, and setting a $160,000 cap on executive directors’ compensation. That comes after reports that former Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin managed to hide his $360,000 compensation from oversight and did little work among other alleged abuses.

If the governor’s bill passes, six regional housing authorities would “take over ownership and fiscal and operational management of all public housing in the commonwealth,” according to a statement from Patrick’s office. The new system would start in July 2014.

Regional housing authorities would have “one executive director, a governing board, central and regional management staff, and local site managers.”

Those working for local housing authorities now would have the opportunity to join the new regional ones. Local communities would retain control over land use and decisions on major redevelopments. Cities and towns would also provide input to RHAs’ annual plans.

But the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, a membership association of local housing authorities, community development agencies, and housing and redevelopment officials, issued a statement rejecting Patrick’s proposal — and offering to file a bill of “sweeping” reforms to improve cost efficiency “without sacrificing the longstanding tradition of local control and decision-making.”

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