, Gloucester, MA

January 16, 2013

Editorial: Governor's plan for housing reform goes too far

Gloucester Daily Times

---- — The downright insulting case of former Chelsea Housing Authority chief Michael McLaughlin, who managed to hide pieces of his $360,000 compensation package and virtual no-show work ethic from lax state oversight officials, shows that there is a need to carry out reforms to the Massachusetts housing system.

But the bill Gov. Deval Patrick filed last week – seeking to scrap all 240 local housing authorities and boards and consolidating them and their services under six regional oversight agencies — looms as a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water. And we can only hope that other lawmakers join behind state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr in fighting for a more realistic approach to reform.

While many housing authority directors across the state are crying foul over the governor’s proposal, it’s to Gloucester Housing Authority Director David Houlden’s credit that he at least recognizes the system needs some changes. Tops among those should be to establish a centralized registration system whereby the growing number of people needing housing assistance can apply once to the state – not to each of the individual housing authorities, or theoretically all 240 agencies in the state – as the case is today.

But Houlden and other housing chiefs also make a number of valid points arguing the importance of maintaining local control. In Gloucester, for example, Houlden noted that the GHS has set up a variety of programs addressing the transportation needs and other issues for the roughly 4,500 residents who are served by the system, which either manages or facilitates rental use for 1,300 housing units in all, topped by the 160-unit Riverdale Park public housing complex off Washington Street at Veterans Way and Patriot Circle.

Houlden noted that, among other factors, a majority of people in Gloucester Housing Authority properties are elderly, many have disabilities, many do not have licenses or cars — posing all sorts of obstacles in a city that, for the most part, is an island community.

“We’ve put together some programs aimed at our local needs,” said Houlden, who said he considers the governor’s plan to be creating a new government bureaucracy through six regional super agencies. “I can’t imagine those programs continuing and operating effectively under some much larger regional agency,” he added — and he’s right.

There is clearly a context to the governor’s proposal. And lest anyone think that the corruption and abuse in the current, micromanagerial system only occurs in big cities and urban areas like Chelsea — long a poster child for government mismanagement —think again.

Remember that, in the early 2000s, when Tim Bassett ran the then-corrupt Essex County Retirement Board, one of his most costly schemes was cooked up with the Manchester Housing Authority here on Cape Ann — a plan that allowed 39 public employees from throughout Essex County to work for a single day at the Housing Authority right before they retired.

The aim was to exploit a loophole in federal pension laws that would allow them to collect their government pensions as well as full Social Security benefits, even though they’d never contributed a dime into the Social Security system. Ultimately, a judge to finally put a stop to it. By then, the 39 employees, including a former Wenham Housing Authority director, had spent their last day “working” at Manchester’s housing authority – with the full cooperation of the local authority and its executive director — to squeeze more pension dollars out of the system and into their pockets.

Schemes and scams like that can give any and all government agencies a bad name. But in this case, the governor seems to be taking an especially heavy-handed approach that will really hurt those who count the most — the housing authority clients.

Consolidate the 240 agencies into perhaps 40 or 50. Create a regional agency for Cape Ann’s four communities. Coordinate services between the agencies of cities and towns. Any of those reorganization plans could well prove to be viable.

But merging all of the state’s local housing authorities into six super agencies — each running a housing system as if it’s strictly a property management company — is a recipe for failure and a social service disaster waiting to happen.

Let’s hope the legislature and even the governor come to realize that as well.