SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

January 14, 2013

Housing officials react to governor's regionalization proposal

BY ETHAN FORMAN
STAFF WRITER

---- — Local and state housing officials are lamenting the loss of local control in Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal to consolidate the state’s public system for low-income and senior housing.

On Thursday, he filed a bill that would abolish all 240 local housing authorities and boards and create six regional ones in an attempt to get a better handle on an outdated system that oversees approximately 80,000 units statewide.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.

“It’s a response to what happened in Chelsea, and I don’t understand why he is consolidating the regional authorities,” said state Rep. Ted Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat.

Former Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin managed to hide his $360,000 compensation from oversight and did little work among other alleged abuses, according to various reports.

If the 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.

“My reaction,” said Minas Dakos, the chairman of the Peabody Housing Authority, which oversees 986 units, “if we are doing our jobs well, why do something as drastic as this? The people I work with over the years, they are good people, and they are trustworthy people.”

The Peabody board is not involved when it comes to hiring staff or deciding who gets housing. Decisions are made fairly, said Dakos, who praised Executive Director Ann Marie Burns, who earns $92,840 a year.

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 Thursday rejecting Patrick’s proposal and offering to file a bill of “sweeping” reforms to improve cost efficiency “without sacrificing the long-standing 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.”

“We are overseers,” Dakos said. “Everything is transparent. We know where the money is going.”

Dakos said the Peabody board receives monthly financial statements. Dakos receives a $1,555 stipend as a member.

“I just don’t think a regionally run housing authority is going to fix any problems,” said 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.”

Besides, the Danvers Housing Authority isn’t broken, King said.

“The units are well-maintained, and units that become vacant are turned over quickly for the next tenants,” King said in an email. “We have reserves that we use to care for our buildings. We have a director that is willing to work with the larger community to build more affordable housing.”

Cindy Dunn, the executive director of the Danvers Housing Authority, said she was surprised by the timing of the introduction of the bill, but had heard rumblings through the state association about such reforms.

“You will lose the local flavor,” said Dunn, who earns $79,500 a year. 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.

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.

Dunn said there is merit to consolidating public procurement and to sharing maintenance expertise. Danvers has more than 420 units of housing and eight staff members. But she said it was hard to imagine how a regional housing authority could serve so many communities with varying housing needs.

Speliotis said he’s skeptical about the bill because it doesn’t addresses the problem — that housing directors have little accountability and almost unilateral power. They are audited by the state auditor or a private auditor, but receive little public scrutiny beyond that.

“Unfortunately, the governor has chosen to attack the small housing authorities,” Speliotis said. “The small housing authorities have small problems, the large housing authorities have large problems.”

The way Speliotis sees it, consolidation will not create any more money to build affordable housing. That money comes from the federal government.

“I think the concept is great,” said John Boris, chairman of the Salem Housing Authority, which has more than 1,700 units. He favors the idea of consolidating large housing authorities with smaller ones, though maybe not to the degree of six regional authorities.

State Rep. John Keenan, D-Salem, said Thursday that the governor’s proposals sound comprehensive, but he had not had a chance to review them in full.

“If there are ways to make the system more efficient, we ought to look at that,” Keenan said. “If we can reduce expenses, and improve the quality of services for those in those sorts of housing units, that’s well worth it, at the same time I think we need to be ... slow to dump all the housing authorities in the same category certainly with the problems in Chelsea. I am not sure it is fair to suggest all of them are in that situation.”

Dakos worried about what the loss of local control might mean, and whether relationships that have built up over the years among residents — many of whom are elderly — staff and the board will be lost.

“The closer the authority is to the people, the better the job,” Dakos said.

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.