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Patrick targets public housing boards

Governor Deval Patrick on Thursday will propose eliminating the state’s troubled patchwork of 240 public housing authorities and replacing them with six regional agencies in an effort to eliminate waste and corruption from the housing program for low-
income and elderly people, state officials say.

Public housing, which shelters more than 300,000 people in Massachusetts, has been buffeted by controversy for more than a year since the Globe reported the inflated $360,000 salary of Chelsea’s housing director. Several other directors were forced to resign amid allegations of abuse of their position.

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Patrick’s proposal, which is sure to be controversial on Beacon Hill, would consolidate public housing management — including budgeting, planning, and administrative functions — into six central ­offices, while leaving a corps of managers and maintenance workers at local housing author­ities.

Local boards would be cut, eliminating the need for more than 1,000 politically appointed commissioners.

“We think this would dramatically improve public housing for those who need it and at the same time save money by delivering it more efficiently,” said Lizbeth ­Heyer, the state’s associate ­director of public housing and rental ­assistance.

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“The current public housing system is antiquated,” she said. “This is a very bold and smart proposal to transform it.”

Some legislators may find Patrick’s plan too bold. For ­decades, housing authorities have been run like separate fiefdoms in each town or city, each with its own board and a chief often selected for political rather than managerial skills.

“The interests are just too entrenched to make it happen,” said one member of a commission appointed by Patrick last year to recommend public housing reforms, who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating others in the housing industry.

“You would have a thousand commissioners calling their state reps and senators complaining bitterly,” the commission member said.

The president of the organization that represents public housing leaders said his group would strongly oppose elimination or consolidation of any housing authorities.

“We will be unveiling our own proposal soon, one that does not undermine local respon­sibilities,” said Richard Leco, adding that the group would go to legislators for support.

As the Globe reported in ­October, critics say that a significant part of the public housing problem in Massachusetts is the huge number of housing authorities, making it difficult for poor and elderly people to navigate the system while straining the leadership talent pool.

Only the state of Texas has more housing authorities than Massachusetts, making state or federal oversight of each individual authority challenging.

Michael E. McLaughlin, the former executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority who resigned in 2011 after the Globe reported his huge salary, graphically illustrated the lack of accountability among public housing officials.

He is now under investigation by federal and state officials in the apparent diversion of millions in federal money from construction projects.

But, for years, McLaughlin received awards for his performance, and his board did not even know how much they were paying him.

A Globe review of records showed McLaughlin failed to carry out some $3.5 million in promised improvements, such as heating and kitchen upgrades, thus freeing up an enormous slush fund that benefited himself, his family, and his friends.

But the lack of oversight went far beyond Chelsea. ­Easton’s housing director, ­Susan Horner, spent hours at work sending flirtatious ­e-mails to various men, while problems were piling up, from unsanitary apartments to money missing from the laundry room.

“I want to go someplace with you where I can touch you, talk to you, and even steal a kiss, but can’t truly have you,” Horner wrote to one man on her business e-mail during a work day in 2009.

She was eventually forced to resign in 2010 after at least five years of questions about her performance.

In Winchester, the housing director had a second full-time job as a courthouse lawyer, requir­ing him to be away from the housing authority for 31.5 hours a week the last three years.

Joseph M. Lally abruptly ­resigned his $73,000-a-year ­position on Oct. 5, days before publication of an article detailing his hours.

A state auditor’s report later showed that Lally filed 16 conflicting time cards showing him in court when he said he was at the authority.

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

The overhaul, if passed by the Legislature and signed into law, would mark the most significant change in public housing since cities and towns ­began building housing and subsidizing rent for veterans returning home from World War II.

Ownership, governance, and management of thousands of housing developments across the state, worth billions of dollars, would shift, on July 1, 2014, from local boards of commissioners to six regional organizations, Heyer said.

Instead of city mayors and town voters choosing four of the five board commissioners, with one picked by the governor, as is now the practice, the six regional housing authorities would be controlled by nine board members appointed by the governor, three of whom would be nominated by local governments, though details are not worked out, Heyer said.

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.

Heyer said the regional ­approach would coincide with another major change: allowing tenants to apply for housing statewide, instead of community by community.

“People now interested in housing in 10 places have to fill out 10 applications,” she said. “That’s ridiculous. In the new system, there will be one application, one wait list.”

Heyer said officials of the Department of Housing and Community Development, which developed the makeover blueprint, estimate that the ­reorganization will cost $3 million to $7 million.

She said that many times that amount is expected to be saved due to greater efficiencies, better maintenance, and faster unit turnaround when tenants move out, among other steps.

A map dividing the state ­into regions has not been drawn yet, but the regions would be contiguous and roughly the same size.

One region would include the Boston Housing Authority, the largest in the state, with ­almost 3,500 public housing units and subsidized apartments.

The thousands of people now employed by housing ­authorities would have the oppor­tunity to move into new positions, either in the central office or on local housing sites, Heyer said.

Site managers, maintenance employees, and other workers would remain local, Heyer said, available to help tenants and respond to emergencies.

“Tenants will experience very little change,” she said.

Patrick’s initiative marks a turnaround for the administration from last year.

When Patrick, furious over McLaughlin’s salary, attempted to increase the professionalism of housing authorities by reduc­ing their numbers, the idea was rejected almost immediately by the panel Patrick ­assembled to consider changes.

Instead, Patrick settled for recommending more training for board members and a proposal to set up a new agency that could provide administrative support for authorities with fewer than 200 units.

Now, Heyer said, Patrick is prepared to make his case to legislators.

“The governor is committed to strong leadership and looks forward to engaging the Legislature in this important initiative,” she said.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. ­Follow him on Twitter ­@spmurphyboston.
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