EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 29, 2013

Housing authority reform faces local pushback

By Brian Messenger
bmessenger@eagletribune.com

---- — The state’s 242 local housing authorities would be scrapped in favor of six regional entities, under a sweeping reform proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick that’s already being met with resistance from some lawmakers and local housing officials.

The switch to regional housing authorities would drastically reshape the administration of public housing in Massachusetts, where local directors and executive boards have been in place since the 1940s.

“The purpose of the reform is to take what is an outdated and inefficient delivery system for public housing in Massachusetts and modernize it and professionalize it,” said Lizbeth Heyer, associate director of public housing for the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which regulates local housing authorities along with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Patrick put forth his housing plan in legislation filed Jan. 10. Local housing directors in the Merrimack Valley appear ready to fight it.

“They’re very much opposed to this,” said state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen. “I think they make a good case. ... I’m not sure creating another level of bureaucracy is the answer.”

Local housing authorities have come under fire since it was revealed in late 2011 that former Methuen town manager and Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin hid his $360,000 annual salary in Chelsea from state and federal regulators.

Further examples of wrongdoing, mismanagement and lax oversight at local authorities have since made headlines in Georgetown, Medford and Peabody, among other communities.

McLaughlin, 67, of Dracut, served as town manager in Methuen from 1990 to 1992 and has long been known as a political power broker in the region. He was charged Wednesday in federal court with four counts of falsifying a record in a federal agency matter.

McLaughlin faces up to 20 years in federal prison but legal experts believe the nature of the complaint against him indicates a potential plea deal has been reached, according to the State House News Service.

A legislative battle

The governor is calling for regional housing authorities (RHAs) to take over for local housing authorities (LHAs) in July 2014.

“This bill will simplify and professionalize our public housing system, improving transparency and accountability,” said Patrick in a statement. “We owe the residents and the public no less.”

The six RHAs would be charged with providing fiscal and operational management for all public housing in the state. DHCD would continue its regulatory role over the RHAs.

Each authority would consist of one executive director, a nine-member governing board and support staff. Current housing authority staff members would have the opportunity to transition to positions within the RHAs.

Calling on-site staffing a “fundamental building block of any property management” operation, DHCD’s Heyer said local site managers, custodial and maintenance staff would remain.

RHA boards would consist of two tenant and one union representatives and six housing professionals. Of the six board members with backgrounds or experience in housing, three will be direct appointments by the governor and three will be nominated by mayors, town managers, boards of selectmen or city councils in the region.

Heyer said cities and towns would retain control over land use and significant redevelopment decisions including change of use, ownership or the financing structure of an existing building or vacant land.

Local input would also be sought annually for planning capital and operating expenditures and tenant participation activities.

“We’re keeping these decisions very local and in the hands of local communities,” said Heyer.

Under the RHA system, Heyer said the state is projecting cost savings and efficiency through the centralization of functions like information technology, human resources, administration, accounting, procurement, and regional technical assistance.

The statewide association representing LHAs rejected Patrick’s housing plan on the same day it was announced.

In its stead, the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (MassNAHRO) plans to file housing reform legislation calling for streamlined service delivery regarding waiting lists, vacant unit turnover, procurement and capital improvements, as well as increased LHA accountability through annual independent audits.

“Our reasoned regional service delivery by local authorities would be much more efficient and cost-effective than creating new, large government agencies, and just as important, it would protect local control and decision-making by the people who best know the needs of their communities,” said MassNAHRO Executive Director Thomas Connelly, Jr., in a statement.

Reshuffling the deck

MassNAHRO continued its push against the governor’s proposal on its website last week by calling on local housing officials to contact their state representatives and senators.

“It is clear that the future of your authority as a valued local public asset is now in the hands of your local legislators,” reads the site.

“We face a long struggle to keep your community’s public housing transparent, accountable and LOCAL!”

Heyer said groups like MassNAHRO are “inflaming the conversation” with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations of the RHA plan.

Andover Housing Authority Director Christine Metzemaekers said there is concern among directors that local input will be lost under the governor’s RHA plan. Metzemaekers said she also wants to learn more details about the projected cost savings.

“Everybody’s a little leery of it,” said Metzemaekers. “The devil’s in the details all the time. In the end I think everybody wants to do what’s best for the residents. That’s what’s most important.”

At the Lawrence Housing Authority, Director Don O’Neill said top preference for vacancies is given to working military veterans. He questioned whether such local control would be lost under a regionalized approach, which he referred to as a “reshuffling of the deck.”

“Let’s not just take politics from the local level and put it on the regional level,” said O’Neill. “I think there are larger issues with public housing.”

Echoing MassNAHRO’s call for more targeted reforms, state Rep. Campbell said LHAs would be better off regionalizing functions like procurement. Campbell said she is against Patrick’s RHA plan because she believes it will create more bureaucracy at the expense of localized services for public housing residents.

“You need dedicated people on site that know the residents and know the needs of the community and can be a community advocate,” said Campbell.