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New bill aims to improve local housing authorities

There was outrage when Gov. Deval Patrick announced his proposal for dealing with mismanagement of public housing authorities in Chelsea, Medford and other places around the state: consolidate the 240 public housing authorities into just six regional entities.

But the compromise bill that passed the House on Tuesday, by a 145-4 vote, is getting a much warmer reception, especially because it maintains local control, increases accountability and fosters provision of local resources, with no forced mergers or eliminations.

Unlike the Patrick proposal 18 months ago, the legislation — which now heads to the Senate — includes incentives for regionalization, but primarily establishes performance standards, with requirements for submitting annual plans and performing annual audits, as well as calling for an annual survey of tenants and state training for members of housing authority boards.

The measure also calls for tenants to be included on each local housing board, and it provides for a statewide waiting list for tenants, rather than requiring them to apply separately to each community they are interested in. Local preferences would still prevail for each housing authority to accept tenants.

To help housing authorities with contracts for construction improvements, a set of three regional capital improvement teams would be set up within the Department of Housing and Community Development to help with planning and procurement for projects.

The measure also includes three pilot regional programs where at least seven communities with at least 750 state-assisted housing units would be offered incentives, including a 20 percent increase in their state operating subsidies to assist tenants pay rent.

A provision, recommended by Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority and submitted as an amendment by Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, allows for a fourth pilot, with at least 10 communities and 250 units in all. All of the four pilot programs approved by the state would be given more flexibility in how they pool funds for public housing and housing voucher programs.

“I am pleased to have added a provision to this legislation that will offer our housing authorities in rural communities the opportunity to consider becoming part of a pilot project to explore ways to join forces and achieve greater efficiencies and improved services through increased regional cooperation,” said Kulik following Tuesday night’s passage of the bill.

As the state’s first and largest regional housing authority, the Franklin County agency has 98 state-funded public housing units for income-eligible seniors and for families in Northfield, Bernardston, Gill, Greenfield, Orange, Northfield, Buckland and Charlemont and also manages 46 apartments in Shelburne Falls for the Shelburne Housing Authority. Along with Shelburne, there are also public housing authorities in Greenfield, Montague and Orange.

Sherman said that many of the proposed reforms would “significantly improve management of local housing authorities ... with the potential to result in better conditions for tenants and more efficient use of public resources.”

With expected adoption of what would be the state’s first performance standards and a system for better accountability, she said, what is needed is additional money for a “grossly underfunded” statewide housing system that is also very large and difficult to effectively manage and monitor.

Under the legislation, Sherman said, “We would at least have the opportunity to have a discussion with some of the other housing authorities in the region to see if there was interest in becoming part of a larger regional housing authority.”

But she added quickly that it would be entirely up to housing authorities — and not necessarily just in Franklin County — and emphasized, “I’m not suggesting we’re looking at going out and taking over other housing authorities, but if this legislation passes, it’s certainly worth housing authorities getting together and having a conversation about, ‘Is this a good opportunity for housing authorities in the region, and if so, what would a bigger regional housing authority look like, and what would we need to do to ensure the communities that participate have a voice?”

The regional housing authority will likely seek a waiver from a requirement under the new legislation that it makes use of the state’s capital; improvement team, said Sherman. “That’s something we do really well. I think we can manage that.”

Neither the Greenfield nor the Montague housing authorities, contacted Wednesday, were aware of changes in the legislation that had been approved by the House.

On the Web:

http://1.usa.gov/1nPT7yb

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

It will take more than this bill to improve management and oversight of housing authorities without much accountability. More taxpayer support for a broken system that excludes those they supposedly serve, will achieve nothing accept more waste. Lawmakers, state agencies and public officials need to look closely at the current lack of transparency and return. Clear federal oversight and legal advocacy for those without a voice would be a start. Ignoring the problem using media spin is political ineffectiveness at its best. Publishing the facts and indisputable truth will also support real change. Regionalizing only works when the all those involved openly perform their mandated responsibilities. Otherwise, it becomes a much larger problem by wasting even more public and human resources.

Transparency and tenant participation would improve Housing Authorities. This includes adequate inspections, access to those results, code-compliant housing, a grievance process that allows tenants to resolve issues, and complete oversight. If records are hidden, Reasonable Accommodations denied, repairs completed without the necessary permits (in a questionable fashion), there are serious problems that need to be addressed. Public money pays for the operation of Housing Authorities---the figures would astound most people. More money will not fix a broken system, however, full transparency, strong federal oversight, and tenant advocates with resident participation for each project/community is a good start. This includes properties set up under Housing Authority related non-profit public charities as Limited-Liability Companies. As long as public money is used for any public project, cause, or need---there should be an expectation of complete disclosure by those footing that bill. If things are hidden, something is amiss. Just ask tenants living in the Ashfield house Apartments, a subsidiary owned by Ashfield House LLC, whose sole managing member is Rural Development, Inc., the non-profit public charity affiliate of the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

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