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Mixed response to proposed overhaul of public housing

  • Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard spreads a salt and sand mixture in a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard spreads a salt and sand mixture in a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait outside of her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait outside of her office on January 17, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait in her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait in her office on January 17, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard shovels snow out of a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard shovels snow out of a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard spreads a salt and sand mixture in a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait outside of her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton sorts through applications at her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Executive Director of the Easthampton Housing Authority Deborah Barthelette of Westhampton poses for a portrait in her office on January 17, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Amherst Housing Authority Maintenance Laborer Chad Howard shovels snow out of a parking lot at the Ann Whalen Apartments on January 16, 2013. <br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

Gov. Deval Patrick wants to eliminate the state’s patchwork of 242 public housing authorities. In their place, he would create six regional agencies spread throughout the state. The regional entities would take over ownership and fiscal and operational management of all housing projects and apartments in the state. Local boards would be cut and hundreds of commissioners hired through political appointments would be eliminated.

While such a plan may increase efficiency, local housing authority leaders say what is lost would be too great a trade-off.

“The tenants will lose a venue for their voice to be heard,” said Jon Hite, longtime executive director of the Northampton Housing Authority.

“I think they are going to lose the TLC that we are capable of giving to our tenants because we know them,” said Deborah Barthelette, executive director of the Easthampton Housing Authority. Her four-person office interacts with tenants on a daily basis, she said.

Some tenants in leadership positions are not so convinced, however. They say that while they may lose connections at the local level, there may be more to be gained by regionalizing services. Advantages are cost efficiencies that could bring such things as new furniture, apartment upgrades, common computers and other capital expenditures they said have been promised for years but rarely materialize.

“I think it would be a great idea,” said Dan Kahle, president of the tenants association at the Walter Salvo House in Northampton. Of the local boards, he said: “I think they could care less about the tenants.”

The proposal comes in the wake of numerous reports of corruption and mismanagement at several housing authorities statewide, especially in the eastern part of the state. Patrick said the new plan would eliminate waste and corruption, upgrade oversight and management and make housing authorities more modern and easier to navigate.

Local housing officials don’t agree. Many called the plan too radical and predict an uphill battle to gain Legislative approval.

“Developing six regional authorities throughout the state is way too ambitious,” said Denise LeDuc, executive director of the Amherst Housing Authority. “I’m not sure how they’ll be able to do that and not have it affect tenants.”

LeDuc, among others, acknowledged that some reform is necessary, but she is concerned that Patrick’s plan will sap local control, where housing authorities are currently able to keep their fingers on the pulses of the residents they serve.

She said the housing authority in Amherst does far more than coordinate and manage state public housing in the town. Her staff often help connect elderly tenants with home health care and other services, for example.

Other housing authority leaders concur.

“I just don’t see where it’s going to be beneficial,” Barthelette said of the governor’s plans to eliminate local housing boards.

Having administrators in Boston or some other off-site location calling the shots is not a good idea, she said. In addition, Barthelette said she worries what the response to tenants’ needs will be like should maintenance positions, for example, be regionalized.

Local housing authority officials say the governor’s announcement was unexpected and lacks enough details for them to fully vet it.

Plan lacks details

Joseph L. Fitzgibbon, chairman of the Hadley Housing Authority’s board, said reforms were discussed as part of a report issued last June by a state housing commission, but nothing as sweeping as what Patrick proposed last week.

The report by the Commission for Public Housing Sustainability and Reform stated that because of the scale and complexity of the local public housing system today, “the entire public housing system is vulnerable to misdeeds that undermine the public trust.”

Fitzgibbon said he believes the days are numbered for the board he’s served on for 20-plus years, and he maintains the quality of the housing stock in Hadley will gradually deteriorate as a result.

The Hadley Housing Authority is among the smaller local housing authorities in the state, overseeing the 40-unit Golden Court housing complex. In recent years the housing authority came under public scrutiny and prompted state intervention to resolve tensions between tenants, staff and board members that had been festering for years.

“I envision there won’t be any board here in mid-2014,” Fitzgibbon said. “My worry is we will lose control and lose services and it’s going to gradually go downhill.”

But not all tenants agree with that assessment. Susan Oppenheimer, secretary of the Golden Court Tenants Association, said it was an uphill battle even getting a tenants association formed in Hadley. In her view, the local housing board is “out of touch” with what its like for elderly and handicapped persons to live in public housing.

“We have found dead ends every time we have gone to the board with issues,” Oppenheimer said. “We fought so hard to have a tenants association, and the board fought us every step of the way.”

Oppenheimer said a regional system could help stamp out favoritism on the local level and that replacing a local housing authority board with a more effective and impartial regional authority could eliminate the need for a tenants association.

“It sounded good to me as long as they start out with a fresh team,” Oppenheimer said of the governor’s regionalization plan.

Hite, head of the Northampton agency, said some changes and reforms would be welcomed by local housing authorities, such as the centralized purchasing of utilities. However, he said the governor’s plans to dismantle local boards and bring a “one size fits all” approach to managing housing authorities would hurt tenants the most.

“Clearly, it is less expensive to have a centralized bureaucracy performing over-arching functions, however, the local governance of local housing authorities is best achieved as close to the ground as possible,” he said. “When tenants don’t believe the housing authority staff is responding to their needs, they can complain to local commissioners and get some action. That will disappear with this proposal.”

Hite said the composition and needs of the state’s 242 housing authorities, which provide 45,600 units of housing, can vary greatly from one town to the next, making a central management and operations structure a challenging proposition.

He attributes some of the problems plaguing local housing authorities to reduced staffing in the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, which has oversight of local housing authorities. In addition, he said the smaller housing authorities should be engaging in conversations to work together and improve efficiencies.

“The central office of DHCD needs to be made larger so the people can get out of the office and be out in the field more,” he said.

The details

Patrick’s plan, if approved by the Legislature, would go into effect July 1, 2014. While he did not map out the precise location of the six regional housing authorities, apart from one in Suffolk County, Patrick did provide some details in his plan.

Instead of each housing authority acting separately, management would come from a central office under the direction of one executive director and other senior managers, a governing board and local site managers.

The governing board will include nine unpaid members to be appointed by the governor. Six members will be housing professionals, three of which would be nominated by local government from the region.

Under the current system, mayors and town voters choose four of the five board commissioners, with one appointed by the governor.

The change would also consolidate under one roof many administrative, budgeting and planning functions in the areas of information technology, human resources, accounting and procurement. Patrick said this centralization would save money and increase efficiency to the state and taxpayers.

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

Patrick has acknowledged in recent media reports that eliminating corruption is playing a role in his new plan.

Some in the Valley believe the plan is an overreaction to what happened in Chelsea, where former housing director Michael E. McLaughlin left after he was exposed for significantly under-reporting his $360,000 salary to the state. He later came under investigation for allegedly diverting millions of dollars in federal funds for undocumented and inappropriate uses.

Leaders of other housing authorities have been outed for mismanagement or improprieties in recent years and resigned. Most of those are located on the eastern side of the state, though one of the biggest corruption cases occurred at the Springfield Housing Authority a half-dozen years ago. That’s when former executive director Raymond B. Asselin and some of his top administrators, including four family members, pleaded guilty to racketeering, bribery and other crimes and were required to pay $4.4 million in reparations to the city’s housing authority.

Other local housing authority leaders say it’s too bad that their public housing programs have to suffer as a result of the actions of a few.

“There may have been a half-dozen bad apples, but the whole apple cart isn’t spoiled,” LeDuc said.

In addition to loss of local control, some area housing chiefs also have concerns about a plan to administer a statewide waiting list for state public housing, similar to how Section 8 federal housing is awarded. That could mean residents from other communities would be placed in housing before a residents already living in that community.

Easthampton’s Barthelette likes the idea of one waiting list, as long as the local preference is not removed.

While Fitzgibbon, of Hadley, said he intend to lobby against Patrick’s proposal to area legislators, he’s not confident it will do much good. LeDuc and Hite said they look forward to having a discussion with state leaders to establish reforms that make sense.

“It’s not cast in stone at this moment,” LeDuc said. “We have no idea how this is going to play out.”

Related

Organization of public housing authorities offers up its own reform plan

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The organization that represents public housing authorities in the state has proposed its own legislation seeking reform of the system without wiping out local control. The plan, to be filed by the Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, would encourage regional collaboration on administrative functions in areas such as waiting lists, apartment or house vacancies, … 0

I am wondering if Mr. Hite's comments "“When tenants don’t believe the housing authority staff is responding to their needs, they can complain to local commissioners and get some action. That will disappear with this proposal.” were said with a straight face or not. I don't think tenants would agree to the truth of the remarks. What was not mentioned the Governor''s plan involves on site management and maintenance personnel it is more a thinning of the beauracy than a reduction in services to tenants. I suspect too many sacred cows are on the alter for it to pass but it is a good idea.

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