Lawmakers spurn governor’s plan to reform housing authority

Despite promises from House and Senate leaders to keep an “open mind,” a near majority of lawmakers has already lined up behind an alternative to Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to consolidate local housing authorities, spelling out early trouble for one of the governor’s reform priorities.

Patrick has filed legislation to dramatically consolidate the state’s network of 240 public housing authorities into six regional authorities, arguing that the more centralized structure will allow for greater oversight and deliver better service for residents of public housing.

The administration also hopes the new structure will improve turnover of vacant units, a problem state officials are trying to tackle with new regulations. Patrick administration officials announced Monday that the Department of Housing and Community Development would be cutting in half subsidies for 543 units maintained by 111 different housing authorities for failing, under a new policy, to fill those vacant units within 60 days.

Critics, however, worry that the governor’s plan will erode accountability, local control, and a trusted link between residents and local housing officials. Others say Patrick ignored the recommendations of a commission on public housing reform because of politics, overreacting to the damage caused by former Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin.

McLaughlin pleaded guilty late last month in federal court to falsifying records about his salary, and he is being investigated for allegedly illegal fundraising ties to Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray. “There’s no question this is in reaction to that. He had tremendous access to the administration and was doing things other agencies would never have been able to get away with,” said Thomas Connelly, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment, at an event at the State House on Monday.

Though it’s only March, already 79 lawmakers have signed on to an alternative bill (H 1094) sponsored by Sen. Marc Pacheco and Rep. John Binienda on behalf of local housing officials calling for a far less drastic overhaul of the system, including six of the 16 members of the Joint Committee on Housing.

“Our plan makes so much more sense than throwing out the baby with the bathwater,” Connelly said.

MassNAHRO held a lobbying day on Beacon Hill Monday, drawing over 200 local housing officials to the State House for a luncheon and to meet with lawmakers to advocate against Patrick’s legislation. “Today is a good day to stick up for your authority,” Connelly said.

“You have to figure out your priorities. Is it your community or the politics of the governor?” Connelly continued.

Rep. Kevin Honan and Sen. Jamie Eldridge, the co-chairs of the Housing Committee, both spoke at the lunch, and Honan said the committee planned to travel the state visiting local housing projects and holding at least three public hearings on the proposed bills, including Patrick’s “very dramatic” bill.

“He went far. That’s his right,” Honan said of Patrick and his proposal. “But we now need to go out and study the best practices that are going on around the Commonwealth. There does need to be some reform. Everybody knows that.”

Eldridge said he was “keeping an open mind” and looking at every proposal “very seriously,” but also offered compliments for local officials who he described as the “strongest advocates for public housing.”

Honan and Eldridge have also filed a $1.4 billion housing bond bill with $500 million for the rehabilitation of public housing units, and Eldridge said he would be pushing for local housing authorities to receive an increased $71 million subsidy — up from the governor’s proposed $64.4 level funding.

Patrick has proposed the creation of six regional housing authorities as part of a reshuffling of public housing control that the administration estimates could save upwards of $10 million a year in administrative costs that could be redirected back into new housing and upkeep of existing units. Municipalities would retain the right to have a separate board make decisions about local land use.

The proposal (H 44) goes well beyond the recommendations for regionalization made by the Commission for Public Housing Sustainability and Reform, but it does include many of the core suggestions.

Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein said he disagreed that politics were behind Patrick’s push for centralized control. “He wanted something that was stronger and bolder than what the commission recommended in that one area of regionalization and what we believe is that it’s going to lead to much better services for the tenants,” Gornstein told the News Service.

The Department of Housing and Community Development’s move to cut subsidies to 111 local housing authorizes comes after the administration found 877 units vacant for more than 60 days in violation of a policy put in place on Jan. 1. While 334 of the units were granted waivers, officials said there was “no excuse” for the other vacancies.

“The long period of time that units are vacant is one of the examples of an area where we see the regionalization proposal leading to greater efficiencies and higher performance on the ground in the property management area. For units that don’t have an approved waiver, there’s really no excuse for not being able to turn around a unit within a 60-day period and get that reoccupied by families who really need it,” said Lizbeth Heyer, associate director for public housing and rental assistance at DHCD.

Connelly questioned the timing of the announcement and blamed a lack of funding for the problems, suggesting that NAHRO’s proposal would help with vacant unit turnover through the regionalization of smaller authorities.

“It sounds like they’re engineering a problem that’s directly attributable to the governor not giving us the money to run the units,” Connelly said.

The MassNAHRO proposal offers a more localized regionalization plan, calling for at least 50 small housing authorities to enter collaborative management agreements with larger authorities to improve vacancy turnover and make procurement and capital improvements more efficient. The bill would also centralize the waitlist for public housing and require independent financial audits, standardized performance monitoring, and a local housing authority accreditation system.

“Sell it to your legislators, and sell it hard,” said Colleen Doherty, executive director of the Taunton Housing Authority.

Connelly urged House lawmakers to reject the line-item in the governor’s budget with $5 million for start-up costs associated with the new regional bureaucracy, and said if lawmakers “have a heart” they will redirect the money toward subsidies for local housing.

Pacheco urged the local officials to speak to lawmakers about the work they do every day. “If I can thank the governor for one thing, he’s got people talking about public housing for the first time in a long time,” Pacheco said.

Norwood House Authority Executive Director Stephen Merritt said the NAHRO legislation would improve the efficiency of housing authorities while preserving a local voice for public housing, lightheartedly teasing Gov. Patrick for not being at the State House to hear their concerns.

“The governor probably heard we were coming in and decided to go count black bears in western Massachusetts,” Merritt said.

Gene Capoccia, executive director of the Leominster Housing Authority, said over the past 13 years he has contracted with the Sterling and Lunenburg Housing Authorities when they ran into financial trouble to share assets and oversee maintenance with great success.

Statewide 26 local housing authorities have already consolidated into 11 organizations operating with collaborative management agreements like those called for in the NAHRO legislation.

“We think the model ought to be expanded upon. The big thing is local communities retain control and there is a continued sense of ownership,” Capoccia said. “Six is just too few.”