In June, a special commission appointed by Governor Patrick made mostly timid recommendations on how to improve operations and prevent corruption in local public housing authorities across the state. This week, Patrick attacked the problem head-on, by unveiling a bill to consolidate the state’s 240 housing agencies into six regional authorities.
More than most other public agencies, local housing authorities are highly vulnerable to wrongdoing. All too often, political coziness characterizes the relationships between housing executives and board members — some paid — who are usually appointed by local elected officials. That’s how former Chelsea housing chief Michael McLaughlin managed to arrange an obscene $360,000 salary for himself while failing to make needed improvements for low-income tenants. Other authorities have been plagued by no-show jobs, fraud, and favoritism in hiring and contracting.
State officials admit they can’t oversee the scores of authorities in charge of 83,000 low-income apartment units across the state. But they can keep track of six regional authorities. Each would be overseen by nine unpaid board members appointed by the governor. The majority of board members would be professionals with credible housing experience.
The consolidation requires the approval of the Legislature. State lawmakers will soon be besieged by local officials claiming Patrick’s move is a power grab by the state. But the proposed law doesn’t undermine local control of land use and redevelopment. And some of the opposition will undoubtedly stem from people who view the authorities as a source of jobs for politically connected people.
But the purpose of public housing isn’t to employ cronies. “The goal [of reform] is to improve the quality of life of people who live in public housing,” said Greg Bialecki, the state secretary of housing and economic development. “Let that be the debate.’’
Absent any compelling arguments that consolidation will reduce the quality of the housing stock or displace tenants, the bill deserves passage by the Legislature.
Any successful effort to regionalize the management of public housing could spur similar consolidation efforts in areas such as education and public safety. That’s all the more reason why state officials need to ensure that the regional housing authorities become models of integrity and efficiency.