, Newburyport, MA

January 12, 2013

Critics: Overreaction, 'power shift' in Patrick's housing proposal

By Matt Murphy

---- — BOSTON — Gov. Deval Patrick’s plan to overhaul the public housing system with a major consolidation of housing authorities met swift opposition from local housing officials on Thursday, while some lawmakers predicted the plan would be a “tough sell” in the Legislature and could take time to sort out.

Patrick recognized that selling his plan to lawmakers would be a “heavy political lift” given their ties to local housing boards and officials, but said legislative leaders told him they would “keep an open mind and see what we propose.”

“I think the point is not to figure out what the easy politics are, but how to get this right,” Patrick said.

Norwood Housing Authority Executive Director Stephen Merritt called Patrick’s proposal “an overreaction to what happened in Chelsea,” referring to former Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin, who left under a cloud after he was exposed for significantly underreporting his exorbitant salary to the state.

“We are not Chelsea people. We are not that type of person,” Merritt said.

The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials rejected the governor’s plan — which would consolidate the state’s 240 local housing authorities into six regional boards — and said it planned to present its own reform proposal to the Legislature next week.

“We agree that there needs to be reform…. What we don’t agree with is the regionalization to six superior regions of housing authorities. We don’t believe in the abolishment of local housing authority boards. That’s painting a broad brush over a thousand elected and appointed housing commissioners who volunteer their time and work tirelessly to ensure at the local level the services that are needed for our elderly and disabled families are delivered in a personalized way,” said Richard Leco, a North Attleborough Housing Authority commissioner and president of the Mass. chapter of NAHRO.

Rep. Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat who has co-chaired the Committee on Housing for nearly a decade, said that as Patrick rolled out his plan he had already heard from many of his colleagues, some of whom have expressed concerns and are happy with the way their local public housing is being managed.

“It’s clear that change is necessary and inevitable. As far as the proposal itself goes, obviously the Legislature will have to take a look at it and I look forward to engaging my colleagues, the residents of public housing and the administrators. It will be a very lengthy process,” Honan told the News Service.

Honan served on a commission that recommended less dramatic steps toward regionalization of public housing oversight. But Honan would not say whether he would embrace the governor’s recommendation, or would have preferred to see a more incremental reform plan.

“It’s a very ambitious proposal, for sure. We’ll see how that goes. I look forward to the process,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr said, in a statement, that he appreciated the governor’s focus on public housing reform, but that “productive reform needs to be about more than a power shift to Boston of responsibilities currently handled locally.”

“A significant question remains, however, as to whether replacing our current system of local housing authorities with larger, centralized bureaucracies represents the best approach to achieving increased efficiencies and needed accountability,” Tarr said in a statement, citing recent “systemic failures” at the Sex Offender Registry Board, the Hinton drug laboratory and the oversight of compounding pharmacies.

Patrick on Thursday detailed his plan to consolidate the decentralized housing authority structure into six regional boards, projecting savings in the “tens of millions” by reducing administrative costs that could be directed back into housing. Under his plan, local authorities would still be able to make land use decisions, but all property management, budget and procurement activities would be handled regionally.

“Many of these housing authorities function well, are deeply connected to local housing needs and responsive to their tenants. Some are not. A number of recent incidents have exposed a need for more transparency and accountability, better performance and greater efficiency. So today I am filing legislation that will modernize, simplify and professionalize the commonwealth’s public housing system,” Patrick said.

Patrick was joined at a press conference to announce his plan by two local housing commissioners, including Newton Housing Authority Commissioner Jeffrey Sacks and Jim Stockard of Cambridge, one of the two housing authorities not represented by the NAHRO.

Rep. Stephen DiNatale (D-Fitchburg) and Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Boston) also attended the press conference to show their support for Patrick’s proposal.

“I am pleased to see we’re at least going to see a dialogue begin in the Legislature. I hope we do. That’s my hope, because I think it’s long overdue,” DiNatale said.

Holmes served on the governor’s Commission on Public Housing, Sustainability and Reform, and said the members struggled with the question of the optimal size of a housing authority. He said the commission’s rejection of a regionalization plan as dramatic as the one Patrick put forward reflected an effort to compromise with a range of interest groups.

“This is a much bolder approach. We were trying to stay less controversial,” Holmes said.

Holmes said it would be a “tough sell” to his colleagues in the Legislature, but predicted the final reform would look close to what Patrick proposed.

“This here says, ‘Look, if we’re going to go out and look to revamp the system and really run it as a business let’s just do it with the whole system and that’s why I’m standing here in support,” Holmes said.

Colleen Doherty, the executive director of the Taunton Housing Authority, said NAHRO will be presenting a reform proposal that encourages smaller, understaffed authorities to contract and partner with larger housing boards for help with procurement services, vacant unit turnover and capital improvements.

Doherty also said NAHRO supports the establishment of an accreditation system for housing authorities, annual independent audits of local housing authorities that are already required, and the administration of a statewide waiting list for state public housing, similar to how Section 8 federal housing is awarded. She said some funding would be required to facilitate the partnerships, but that it would be “well spent.”

Merritt, Doherty and Leco, who held a press conference on Thursday, said government works best when it’s close to the public, suggesting Patrick’s plan to regionalize housing oversight will create a disconnect between bureaucrats and the people served. The three officials stand to lose their jobs, or be reassigned, under Patrick’s plan.

“What you heard today is the status quo is OK,” said Matthew Sheaff, a spokesman for the DHCD, in response to the local housing officials rejecting Patrick’s plan.

Asked about critics suggesting his plan would usurp local control, Patrick said, “You would have enjoyed some of the conversations we have had about that very thing.”

“Part of the delight of this commonwealth is that we have 351 cities and towns with their own individual character, their own town centers, their own feel, and it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing. But on a whole host of levels, and this isn’t the only one, we aren’t acting in a way that captures the maximum efficiency in the delivery of public services and the stewardship of public investment,” Patrick said.

Patrick continued, “It isn’t about being disrespectful of local engagement and authority. That is important and we have tried to strike that balance here.”

Stockard predicted blowback from housing directors, saying it would be “naïve” not to expect that, and said that he thought workers would come around as they saw the efficiencies that could be gained from the change.

“They’ll see that capital improvements can be done more efficiently. They’ll see that tenant selection can be more effective. They’ll see that rent collection and record-keeping can be more efficient,” he said.

Reporter Andy Metzger contributed to this report.