There are systemic weaknesses in the oversight of public housing authorities in Massachusetts, starting with erratic controls by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and sloppy state audits, which give too much cover to unethical housing directors and insular local boards. While many authorities function well and provide safe, decent housing for low-income populations, too many others are prone to inefficiencies and outright corruption.
In the wake of recent scandals, both HUD and the Patrick administration should be exploring ways to improve supervision of the 242 authorities, some quite small, which are dotted throughout the state. And lawmakers on Beacon Hill should create new incentives for housing authorities to merge and consolidate services, which would allow for cheaper, more efficient management, with less temptation toward local corruption.
By far, Chelsea represents the most egregious example. A recent Globe review of nearly $9 million in federal funds paid to the Chelsea Housing Authority since 2002 found that more than $3.5 million intended for repairs was used instead for questionable expenditures, including pay boosts, travel junkets, and poorly documented contracts for trash pick-up by the city. Former housing director Michael McLaughlin ran up an obscene annual salary of $360,000 before he was exposed in the press.
The scandal raises serious questions about whether Chelsea, a struggling city of 35,000, can ever break free of the grip of corruption. In 1991, Chelsea descended into fiscal chaos, prompting state officials to step in and appoint a receiver. By then, four consecutive mayors had been implicated in federal probes of wrongdoing largely related to corruption in the city’s hiring, construction contracts, and police department. In 1995, the city finally seemed to emerge into the sunlight under a new city charter. But just a few years later, McLaughlin would manage to wiggle his way into the housing authority despite warnings about his character from a former city manager.
Time and again, Chelsea has been given a chance to redeem itself. And time and again it has failed. Now, Patrick and Chelsea city manager Jay Ash have replaced the housing authority’s board. A better course would be to absorb Chelsea’s 1,400 public housing units and rental certificates into the well-managed Boston Housing Authority. The likes of McLaughlin couldn’t go unnoticed in Boston.
Such regionalization is allowed under state law. And Boston would be the perfect match because its governance structure maintains a clear line of accountability between the housing authority director and the mayor, who sets the director’s salary.
Similar solutions should be considered in every authority where directors have run amok. In Easton, former housing director Susan Horner neglected her duties while generating flirtatious e-mails at the office. In Peabody, former housing director Frank Splaine eschewed work in favor of local sports bars and social clubs. And on it goes.
Earlier this year, Patrick appeared to be moving toward reducing the number of housing authorities, believing, with strong justification, that 242 is way too many. But a special study panel unwisely backed away from the idea, opting for more training for board members and other minor fixes. Each new revelation of corruption, however, is a reason to renew the debate over regionalization.
State and federal housing officials pay lip service to the need for accountability and recouping lost funds. But it isn’t convincing. McLaughlin, after all, gained his foothold despite the establishment of strict ethical standards for Chelsea officials following earlier episodes of corruption.
In the past, there was even intermittent talk about annexing Chelsea to Boston. But the idea lost elevation as Bostonians contemplated the liabilities of taking on one of the poorest cities in the Commonwealth without commensurate increases in state aid. There is no reason, however, to resist a merger of housing authorities.
Before long, investigators will withdraw from Chelsea, leaving a system of fiscal controls in their wake. Sadly, that’s when Chelsea usually reverts to type. It can’t be tolerated again. As Chelsea goes, so do too many other small housing authorities.