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editorial

Sweeping changes needed to curb abuses at local housing authorities

There are 242 public housing authorities in Massachusetts. Not all serve as convenient hiding places for lazy or corrupt managers. But housing agencies are uniquely prone to waste, fraud, and abuse, especially those overseen by inattentive or complicit boards of commissioners.

The Medford Housing Authority is the latest agency to fall under the scrutiny of state and federal investigators. The city’s housing chief, Robert Covelle, faces allegations of favoritism in hiring and contracting. Governor Patrick has demanded his resignation. But he couldn’t unilaterally remove Covelle despite the state’s financial support for Medford’s public housing projects. Neither can the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. And therein lies a major problem: funders have too little control over who runs these multimillion-dollar agencies charged with sheltering low-income families, elderly residents, and people with disabilities.

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Small, locally appointed or elected boards — some paid — oversee the state’s housing authorities. Political coziness all too often characterizes the relationships between the housing executives and the boards who hire them. That’s how former Chelsea housing chief Michael McLaughlin managed to elevate his annual salary to an obscene $360,000, much of it unreported to state officials. The biggest political corruption case in the modern history of Massachusetts — at least as far as sentencing is concerned — took place in Springfield, where former housing chief Raymond Asselin ran amok.

HUD and the state Department of Housing and Community Development need veto power over who gets hired to run the state’s housing authorities. And they need the ability to regionalize many of the smaller housing authorities that are often run like fiefdoms. Housing authorities require top-flight purchasing directors, contract attorneys, and other executives who are beyond the budget of small- and medium-size authorities. Without such layers of professional management, the potential for waste and fraud is too great to tolerate much longer.

Ideally, housing authorities with scores or hundreds of units would be centralized under a regional authority comprising thousands of units managed by top professionals. As in Boston, they could be overseen by monitoring boards that have no direct control over hiring and firing, and thus no temptation to indulge in patronage. And if boards of commissioners are needed at all, their members should be appointed by the governor.

Housing authority managers are known to frighten their tenants by telling them that regionalization will lead to the loss of their homes. But tenants and the taxpayers both stand to benefit from better management.

These desperately needed reforms will require legislative approval, and some lawmakers may resist because they view the small housing authorities in their districts as symbols of autonomy, and perhaps sources of jobs for politically connected people. The Legislature needs to resist such arguments and look to the greater good. Funders, meanwhile, need to take whichever independent actions they can, such as the recent move by HUD and state housing officials to cap the salaries of housing authority directors.

Funders have too little control over who runs these multimillion-dollar agencies

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More frequent audits of housing authorities are also needed. The state auditor has placed the housing authorities on a three-year audit cycle, similar to HUD’s schedule. That’s too infrequent for housing authorities, some which have long taken advantage of the lack of scrutiny that comes from serving the poorest and least powerful residents in each state. It’s noteworthy that public housing authorities that create or manage developments for families with a broad range of incomes — such as those commonly found in Boston, Atlanta, and the District of Columbia — are generally better run.

The recent Medford and Chelsea cases are warning signs. Public housing is too important and limited a resource to be put in the hands of those who are prone to patronage, favoritism, and self-dealing.

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