EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

March 5, 2013

Housing authority reform unlikely

By Matt Murphy
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON – 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 yesterday 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, a Methuen town manager in the 1990s, pleaded guilty last month in federal court to falsifying records about his salary, and is being investigated for alleged illegal fundraising ties to Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray.

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,” 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.

MassNAHRO held a lobbying day on Beacon Hill yesterday, 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.

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.

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.