Housing Authority Reform and Local Control

Governor Patrick yesterday unveiled a proposal that would radically alter the administration of public housing in Massachusetts. The Administration, rocked by earlier stories of housing mismanagement and corruption centered around Chelsea Housing Authority Director Michael McLaughlin, has now responded with this plan to centralize housing administration by creating six regional hubs that would provide administration and maintenance services to the 240 Housing Authorities that exist in Massachusetts. The Governor, in his press release, touted the need for reform of the state housing bureaucracy.

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

The legislation consolidates the state’s 240 housing authorities into six regional housing authorities and builds on the steps the Patrick-Murray Administration has taken to increase transparency, accountability, performance, efficiency, innovation and cost savings in the state’s public housing system. The reforms, part of a series of reforms the Governor is proposing to make government work better, are the latest step in the Administration’s efforts to upgrade oversight and management at local housing authorities, and address issues that plague some authorities while also providing another opportunity for municipalities to regionalize certain services.

The Governor would abolish local Boards of Commissioners and Executive Directors, replacing them with the regional hubs. The Governor is at once attempting to improve governance, address issues of lack of local resources for both maintenance and capital needs, and streamline administration in order to save money. Of course fighting against thousands of existing board members is a large political lift, regardless of the relative merits of the Governor’s plan. How hard? Mass NAHRO, the state organization that represents housing authorities and housing professionals, has already issued a rejoinder to the Governor. They have issued key elements of their own plan to address some of the issues the Governor is taking on. From Mass NAHRO:

Waiting list administration: MassNAHRO already provides services to facilitate applications and reduce waiting lists for federal Section 8 housing to 88 local housing authorities. Under the reform plan, a similar wait list would be established for all state subsidized units. MassNAHRO would be a potential administrator for such a list. MassNAHRO’s Section 8 centralized waiting list program has already resulted in a substantial reduction in waiting lists and processing times and costs for LHAs.

Vacant unit turnover: A number of housing authorities have had difficulty in preparing vacant state units for re-occupancy within the 60-day period required by DHCD, due in large part to a lack of funding for operating and capital costs. Under the MassNAHRO plan, a regional approach would be implemented by which small housing
authorities could contract with larger authorities in their region to provide unit turnover services.

Procurement: The plan proposes the hiring of additional staff members at those authorities who are designated as Regional Service Agencies, who are trained and certified in the area of procurement and who would assist smaller authorities in their region. These regional procurement staffs would meet on a quarterly basis to share ideas
and discuss common programs so that the services provided to the smaller agencies would be consistent and uniform.

Capital improvements: Local housing authorities currently receive capital funds through a formula funding program administered by DHCD. This is a highly technical and time-consuming process that could be managed on a regional basis by larger housing authorities. This would ensure skilled oversight of the state’s investment in the renovation and upgrade of public housing.

Annual Independent Audits: Local Housing Authorities would contract the annual performance of an independent financial and compliance audit to be completed within nine months of the LHA’s fiscal year end. LHA’s will arrange the transmission of financial data to the Department to improve its ability to monitor the financial condition of LHAs and to assure transparency in LHA operations.

Accreditation: The plan proposes the establishment of an LHA accreditation system, similar to those utilized in the healthcare and education industries. This system shall include the utilization of independent groups of public housing industry professionals as evaluators.

Implementation: Implementation of these proposals shall include consultation with stakeholders, specifically Public Housing Residents, LHA Commissioners, LHA Staff,DHCD Staff, and Municipal officials.

One of the major problems is that local housing authorities, (LHA’s) especially smaller ones, are having trouble with modernization and standard maintenance of existing units. Their budgets are such that in many cases vacant apartments stay vacant for far too long due to the inability of minuscule maintenance staff to prepare them properly for new tenants. Such vacancies cost the LHA’s money, and require them to ask for additional state assistance. The maintenance needs of smaller LHA’s certainly are not being met under the current system, and some elements of a regional approach would help to solve that very real problem. The Governor and Mass NAHRO come at that with distinctly different approaches, but both recognize the problem, and the need for change.

The potential for better governance, and some improvements in efficiency, are clearly there. And those potentials go beyond maintenance and capital needs. Shared backroom resources, including list management and accounting and procurement functions, are ripe for improvement. Whether real reform that produces those results requires an erasure of all local control is an issue that the Legislature will have to grapple with. But the need for some change appears to be agreed upon by all.

At this blog we will occasionally handicap a political result. In this case I make the Governor a 4 to 1 underdog on the issue of getting this legislation passed in the current Legislative session. It will be his last chance at this type of reform as Governor. We will try to get some of our local legislators to give us comment on where they stand on this very important issue. Here is a link to an interesting Commonwealth Magazine story on some of the politics involved inside the Administration on this issue.

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