Local control key to successful public housing
By Josh Cutler and Karen Reilly
For The Patriot Ledger
Consolidate or collaborate?
Those are contrasting viewpoints at the heart of a pair of proposals to reform our state’s system of local housing authorities. Under a plan filed by Governor Deval Patrick, the 242 housing authorities across Massachusetts would be consolidated into six regional housing authorities (RHA).
Existing housing authority boards would be eliminated. Each RHA would take over the finances and operations of the public housing within its region, under the direction of an executive director and a nine-member board appointed by the governor. Local site staff would still provide some services, such as cleaning common areas or making routine repairs.
While we applaud the Governor’s attempt to control costs and enhance oversight, this top down approach to local housing is not in the best interests of our housing authorities, or most importantly the thousands of senior, veteran and disabled residents who live in them.
Recent abuses at housing authorities in Chelsea, Peabody and Winchester have garnered most of the headlines, but what gets less attention are the many success stories –– the local (and often smaller) housing authorities filling critical public housing needs on shoestring budgets with limited staff.
It is paradoxical to suggest that the solution to the misdeeds in a few (mostly larger) housing authorities is to create more large, centralized bureaucracies answerable to the governor rather than local voters.
That point was driven home at a recent housing roundtable hosted in Pembroke. Residents spoke passionately about their experiences living in local housing and shared stories about local staff who often go above and beyond the call of duty to aid residents. “We don’t want to lose that personal touch,” was the common refrain.
A more sensible reform plan that maintains the best aspects of our public housing but still brings some needed changes has been offered by housing advocacy group, MassNAHRO, and boasts by a bipartisan coalition of 76 legislators.
Under this collaborative approach smaller housing authorities such as in Hanson would be required to contract with a larger housing authorities to help provide management services. Costs savings would come from the regionalization of accounting, procurement and administrative services and sharing of resources.
Additional taxpayer safeguards would come from annual independent financial and compliance audits as well as a monitoring system to identify troubled housing authorities.
The legislation would also set up an accreditation system similar to what we see in some of our schools and libraries to encourage best practices and sound management. To eliminate redundancies, a centralized application and waiting list would be required of all housing authorities with state units.
This type of collaborative approach to reform is a wiser solution than the governor’s well-intentioned but over drastic consolidation plan.
Every community has different housing needs. The residents who rely on our public housing system are often among our most vulnerable. Those residents are best served by keeping decision-making at the local level answerable to local voters instead of another regional bureaucracy.
Josh Cutler is state representative for the Sixth Plymouth District. Karen Reilly is housing authority director for the Town of Hanson.