Belatedly, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development is applying the kind of heat that the Chelsea Housing Authority needed to feel years ago. Between 2002 and 2009, the authority received $7 million in grants to modernize its low-income apartments. But the local agency seems not to have made many of the promised improvements; evidence suggests that, instead, now-deposed director Michael McLaughlin used much of the money to pay puffed-up salaries and expenses for himself and his top aides — right under the not-so-watchful eyes of the authority’s board, its auditors, the state, and HUD itself.
It was gratifying to learn, in a Globe story Monday, that HUD is considering whether to ask the Chelsea authority to repay the $7 million. The authority, in turn, revealed that it may seek money back from McLaughlin and from the auditors who reviewed the financial statements that his team submitted. The moves should make it clear that everyone in the public-housing funding chain — from HUD to state government to local authorities to their executives, board members, and auditors — bears some responsibility when money intended to assist low-income people instead helps facilitate a $360,000-a-year salary for a small city’s public housing director.
How much money actually comes back is anyone’s guess. “We don’t have it,” McLaughlin’s successor, Albert Ewing, told the Globe. Rather than simply accept Ewing’s word for that, HUD should conduct its own inquiry. And particularly if the scandal-ridden housing authority can’t or won’t give any money back, HUD should press it to get the money back from McLaughlin and make the repairs it promised to make years ago.
The goal, after all, shouldn’t be to make Chelsea public housing tenants suffer for the deeds of McLaughlin and others, but to make it clear to the authority — and its counterparts in other communities — that its commitments are to be observed.
But HUD’s own oversight of local authorities is due for a reckoning, too. The money for housing authorities in Massachusetts comes mostly from on high; the Chelsea authority, for instance, gets two-thirds of its budget from HUD. Yet authorities have great latitude to manage themselves as they see fit, and lack the accountability usually associated with municipal governments that are funded mainly with money from local taxpayers. One could envision HUD playing a far more aggressive role; instead of gently deferring to local management, which in some cases may be minimally competent or even actively deceptive, the agency should seek to defund, shut down, or forcibly consolidate authorities that don’t make good on their commitments.
The Chelsea authority should be dissolved, and its assets should be handed over to some other agency — such as the Boston Housing Authority — that can do a proper job of overseeing them. Governor Patrick’s reform bill, which would merge the 240-odd local housing authorities in Massachusetts into six regional ones, would provide an even more systematic solution. But over time, unless HUD demands more of local managers, the scandal at the Chelsea authority could recur at its many counterparts in Massachusetts and elsewhere.