GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

January 15, 2013

Statewide housing authority plan draws fire

GHA chief, others critical of governor's merger proposal

By Times Staff
Gloucester Daily Times

---- — 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.”

“Each community is different,” said Susan Bonner, chairwoman of the Nahant Housing Authority, in the same prepared statement. “Nahant is different from Lynn; Lynn is different from Marblehead and Swampscott. We’re not going to be well-served by someone who is somewhere else.”

“This is really creating an impenetrable bureaucracy that I can’t see handle Gloucester’s very unique needs,” said David Houlden, who serves as executive director of the Gloucester Housing Authority. “This would seem to create six super agencies, and that’s not the answer.”

The GHA oversees more than 1,300 housing units in all — 600 in 11 public housing properties, including the 160-unit Riverdale Park on Veterans Way and Patriot Circle, 97 units in McPherson Park, 81 in Sheedy Park and 50 in Lincoln Park, among other sites. There are also 700 units under the GHA’s rental assistance, and another 25 facilitated home ownership units.

In all, the Gloucester system serves some 4,500 residents — and Houlden said he can’t imagine them getting the same level of service from a larger, regionalized agency.

“We’re an island community,” Houlden said. “We have challenges that other cities and towns do not face — in terms of transportation and otherwise.”

He noted that a majority of people in Gloucester Housing Authority properties are elderly, many have disabilities, many do not have licenses or cars.

“We’ve been able to address local issues locally, and we’ve put together some programs aimed at our local needs,” Houlden said, “and I can’t imagine those programs continuing and operating effectively under some much larger regional agency that’s not here.”

Houlden and Gloucester are hardly alone.

The governor’s proposal has already drawn questions from state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester.

“I appreciate Governor Patrick’s decision to address the issue of public housing reform in light of some of the egregious cases that have been reported..,” Tarr said in a prepared statement. “Clearly, stronger safeguards are needed to protect taxpayer dollars, and to ensure that those dollars are used efficiently and effectively to rehabilitate and maintain our deteriorating public housing infrastructure.

“A significant question remains, however, as to whether replacing our current system of local housing authorities with larger, centralized bureaucracies represents the best approach to achieving increased efficiencies and needed accountability,” Tarr said. “Recent systemic failures involving the Sex Offender Registry Board, the state drug evidence testing lab and the oversight of compounding pharmacies prove that large bureaucracies do not guarantee effectiveness, efficiency or safety.”

Cindy Dunn, the executive director of the Danvers Housing Authority, said she’s concerned the consolidation “will lose the local flavor.” By local flavor, Dunn is referring to the creation of a number of affordable and elderly housing projects in town that were made possible by the Danvers Housing Authority as well.

For instance, in May, Town Meeting voted to subdivide the land of the former Danversport School, itself a Housing Authority affordable-housing complex, so Habitat for Humanity could build a duplex condo on Mill Street.

“I don’t think a regional housing authority could establish those relationships,” Dunn said.

“I just don’t think a regionally run housing authority is going to fix any problems,” added Carla King, chairwoman of the Danvers Housing Authority. “When you have a board that is from the town, knows the town, loves the town, they are going to make sure the properties are run well.”

Houlden said he could understand a move toward some consolidation, and noted that most states have larger individual housing agencies for big cities, with county-run regional programs for smaller towns.

“That wouldn’t work in Massachusetts (which no longer had a structured county government),” he noted, “but can we regionalize some aspects of our services? Of course.” A centralized registry for housing would be a positive step forward, he said.

“But if they’re just going to treat all of this simply as a property management program — and that’s about all that six super agencies could do, it’s going to fail miserably,” he said. “What we do is much more than that.”

Staff Writer Ethan Forman contributed to this story. He can be reached via email at eforman@gloucestertimes.com.