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Local leaders respond to Patrick’s housing proposal

Some local housing authority leaders, as well a the mayor of Greenfield, are calling the governor’s proposal to regionalize local housing authorities like the ones in Greenfield and Montague “a mistake.”

“I have sent our state representatives a letter letting them know how I feel about this,” Mayor William Martin said Friday. “I do not support regionalizing housing.”

Martin’s reaction came after learning on Thursday that the governor proposed a bill this week that he said would help modernize the system that shelters 300,000 low-income families and elderly residents across the state in subsidized housing projects like Elm Terrace in Greenfield or Sunrise Terrace in Turners Falls. There are currently 83,000 public housing units in the state, according to state housing records. Franklin County is home to 772 of those units, according to documents from the state’s Commission on Public Housing Sustainability and Reform.

The proposal would consolidate public housing management — including budgeting, planning and administrative functions — into six central offices. Local communities would retain control over land use and redevelopment decisions.

Martin said he feels the state does not have a good record managing local issues, especially those in the western part of the state.

“We need local influence and control when dealing with people in need of housing in this area,” said Martin. “We are the ones dealing with them. We are the ones who understand their problems.”

“From de-institutionalization, homelessness, homeless veterans, and crumbling state housing units to the ‘Anti-Snob Zoning Act,’ the state has failed to plan or pick up the pieces,” said Martin. “Clearly the state has failed in the management of these administrative and legislative initiatives.”

State law Chapter 40B, which specifically deals with affordable housing, is also referred to as the “Anti-Snob Zoning Act.”

Martin said he would support an effort to modernize the application process for housing. He said he’d also like to see a fair distribution of funds, and he’d like to see the state offer a realistic state-assisted rental subsidy.

“What we need are new units,” said Martin. “The state should be providing ample money for new or rehabbed housing units and ideas for sharing the community housing load.”

Local housing authority

John Counter, executive director of Greenfield Housing Authority, said he agrees with the mayor, and he does not think giving up local control is in the best interest of residents of the type of housing his agency provides, or in the best interest of taxpayers.

“We are the ones closest to the people in need of this type of help in our area,” said Counter. “What Greenfield needs is different than what Springfield needs or Boston needs.”

Counter said local housing agency heads are either appointed by the mayor of a city or elected by a town.

“People know us — they want us,” said Counter. “We represent specific communities. That would change with regionalization.”

Counter said the governor’s proposal to streamline the state’s public housing system by eliminating 240 local public housing authorities and replacing them with six regional agencies aimed at ridding the system of corruption and saving taxpayer dollars was “a left-hand turn out of nowhere.”

“It wasn’t reflective of any of the conversations that had been going on,” said Counter.

Greenfield Housing Authority owns Oak Courts (families), Elm Terrace (elderly), the Morgan-Allen House (congregate living), and a number of single-family homes, duplexes, and condominiums. It also manages the Winslow kitchenette apartments at Wells and Main streets.

Bellamine Dickerman, executive director of Montague Housing Authority, which oversees Keith Apartments, Sunrise Terrace, Hillcrest Homes, and Highland School Apartments, said she hates to think about how many people will lose their jobs if the state goes through with regionalization.

“I’m also worried about residents,” said Dickerman. “They need to have people who know them dealing with their issues. We know each tenant individually.”

Dickerman said regionalization of housing authorities may create more chaos than good.

“I guess we’ll just have to see what happens,” said Dickerman. “I just don’t think it makes any sense.”

Dickerman said she feels smaller housing authorities are being punished for the negative actions of someone from a larger housing authority outside Boston.

“I don’t see the governor’s proposal as any type of solution,” said Dickerman.

Robyn Sherman, executive director of Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said she hasn’t had time to look at the governor’s full proposal.

“It has just been proposed, so I want to read it and keep an open mind,” she said. “It offers sweeping reform, so I think there is going to be lots of debate before anything is decided.”

Sherman said because she runs a regional housing authority, she can understand the governor’s motivation to find ways to deliver more efficient and effective housing services.

“We have a regional housing authority that has served Franklin County well,” said Sherman. “I really have to look at the governor’s proposal — what it is and why — before commenting.”

Orange Housing Authority, which oversees Redbrook Village, King James Court, Pequoig Apartments, and Cottage Street Apartments, could not be reached for comment, but would also be affected should housing become regionalized.

Reforms

Richard Leco, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials, said Counter is right about the governor’s proposal seeming to come out of the blue.

“We have been in talks with the governor for months, and I think this is a knee-jerk reaction to the Chelsea issue,” said Leco, who said the governor formed a task force last year to review public housing. Leco is one of the task force members.

Leco said Gov. Deval Patrick’s proposal came after a scandal concerning the Chelsea Housing Authority. Its executive director was forced to resign after he got caught under-reporting his income as $166,000, when he was making $360,000 a year.

“The task force rejected the idea of creating six regional agencies at the beginning of talks, which started a year ago,” said Leco. “But, we do agree with the governor that there is a need for reform.”

Leco said the task force and housing authority heads across the state believe that there should be required training for housing commissioners, who should be certified. He said they also believe there should be independent, outside audits done on all housing authorities once a year, and waiting lists should be centralized.

“We also believe there needs to be a regional-type agency that assists smaller agencies,” said Leco. “A collaboration.”

Leco said what would happen, if all of the state’s housing authorities consolidated into six regional ones, would be that residents would lose all personal contact.

“There would not be a maintenance person who people could call and immediately depend on,” he said. “There would be no personal contact for them.”

Leco said he has talked to many housing authority heads across the state recently, and he has not found any positive reaction for putting housing in the state’s hands.

“We are going to file our own reform package and see what legislators do,” he said.

State legislators

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg said he’s not going to immediately dismiss any proposal that would make government more efficient and improve the administration of a publicly funded program, but needs to do a lot more homework before he gets behind the governor’s proposal.

“It’s going to be a challenge to understand the problems and try to solve them,” said Rosenberg. “One of the problems has been inadequate state oversight.”

Rosenberg said he has been told federal oversight is good and aggressive, but state oversight hasn’t been as good.

“Abuses of the system are driving discussions,” said Rosenberg. “One way to solve some of them is by improving state oversight, which means investing more money in oversight.”

He said regionalizing would create more oversight, but a significant amount of local control would be lost.

“Tenants are in these units because of limited income,” said Rosenberg. “If there were six regional housing authorities, those tenants would have to deal with an entity that they couldn’t get to easily.”

Rosenberg said the nearest housing authority for people in Franklin County could end up being 40 miles away.

“How would they interact with property managers?” asked the senator. “How would they get the services they need? How much attention would they get?”

Rosenberg said if smaller regional housing authorities had to compete with larger ones for funds, the smaller ones might get lost in the mix.

“There are a lot of important and serious questions that need to be satisfied before I could support something like this,” said Rosenberg.

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