, Salem, MA

January 16, 2013

Our view: Time for change in housing system

The Salem News

---- — When Tim Bassett was running the Essex County Retirement Board, one of his most expensive schemes was cooked up with the Manchester Housing Authority: a plan to allow 39 public employees from throughout Essex County to work for a single day at the housing authority just before they retired.

The aim was to exploit a loophole in the pension laws that would allow them to collect their government pensions, as well as full Social Security benefits, even though they’d never contributed to the Social Security system.

State pension authorities tried to stop it, but it took a judge to finally put an end to it. By then, all the employees (including a former Wenham Housing Authority director) had spent their single day “working” at Manchester-by-the-Sea’s tiny housing authority, and the retirement board had spent $200,000 of taxpayers’ money on lawyers.

This is the kind of thing that can happen when 240 separate housing authorities, none of them with much of a public profile, operate on their own and under the radar. And it’s one of the reasons we support, wholeheartedly, Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to reform the state housing system.

The immediate impetus for Patrick was the $360,000 salary that the Chelsea Housing Authority director had managed to hide from the state, though he had the approval of his local board, while allegedly neglecting to carry out repairs and improvements. Now the governor wants to regionalize the authorities, consolidating the hundreds of agencies into six that would take over management and fiscal control of public housing.

There are other benefits to the plan, not the least of which is efficiency. Here again, there’s a local example, this time with the Ipswich Housing Authority. The Ipswich board came under fire a couple of years ago when it was learned that 21 out of 100 apartments at one complex were vacant — and some had been for years — because no one had performed needed repairs. At the time, the authority had a waiting list of 124 people seeking housing.

Ipswich housing officials said they didn’t have enough money to fix the apartments, so they’d just left them empty. That shouldn’t happen under a regional system, where maintenance funds and maintenance workers could be used more efficiently, wherever they’re needed, and small housing authorities wouldn’t have to compete against each other for grants.

The reforms would also eliminate the cost of pay for individual board members at hundreds of housing authorities. In Salem, for example, the five board members took home about $3,000 apiece in 2011. (The stipends vary by community; some are higher and some communities don’t pay their board members at all.) It could be a significant savings when factored on a statewide basis.

And the reforms would allow tenants to apply for housing once — not at different agencies all over the state.

We beg to differ with those who say local control is better. Regional control is more efficient, and local control has in fact proven to lead to a number of problems. That’s not an indictment of the many local housing workers who are honest and hardworking, and who do good work every day.

But taxpayers deserve more accountability than they’re getting from the current system, and it’s well past time for reforms.