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Patrick asks overhaul of local housing agencies

The Patrick Administration recommended Thursday an overhaul of the state’s 242 local housing authorities, regionalizing some functions like accounting and rent collection, but leaving housing authorities under the control of locally elected or appointed commissioners.

The recommendations are the work of a commission Governor Deval Patrick appointed earlier this year in response to scandals at the Chelsea and Medford housing authorities uncovered by the Globe. Many of the proposals in the 51-page commission report would require legislative approval before going ­into effect.

The Commission for Public Housing Sustainability and ­Reform would create a new quasi-public authority or nonprofit to take over some of the functions now carried out individually by about 100 housing authorities with fewer than about 200 units of public housing. The commission called for greater transparency at all the authorities and mandatory training for board members.

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“The new system would achieve greater efficiencies,” said Aaron Gornstein, Patrick’s housing and community development undersecretary and chairman of the commission. “It’s not regionalization, per se, because there would be local control. But it would entail a lot of regional collaboration.”

The Patrick administration had advocated greater consolidation of the housing authorities, essentially taking over ownership of smaller housing authorities and eliminating the five-member boards of commissioners that control the local agencies.

“The governor wanted something that went way ­beyond what we ended up with,” said Jack Cooper, executive director of the Massachusetts Union of Public Housing Tenants and a member of the commission. “But it would be hard to take authorities away. You just can’t change the world overnight.”

Cooper said tenants he has talked to felt threatened by elimination of local authorities. “They want to be able to pick up the phone when there’s a problem and get someone local,” he said. “On the other hand, they say they are very concerned about the corruption.”

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Cooper said there’s much work still to be done in defining in detail the governor’s proposal and drafting it into a bill for consideration on Beacon Hill.

“To a large extent, the jury is still out on this proposal,” he said.

Patrick set up the commission after revelations that ­Chelsea Housing Authority ­director Michael E. McLaughlin had deliberately concealed his inflated $360,000 annual salary from state officials. Patrick said he was “boiling” and demanded McLaughlin’s resignation along with his entire board of directors.

A few months later, Medford Housing chief Robert Covelle was forced to resign under pressure amid allegations that he had given jobs and contract work to friends and family members, while frequently flouting federal contracting rules.

The commission found that many authorities need to be more open and accountable to the public, but they also need technical advice on how to manage the state’s aging public housing stock. The commission is also calling for more funds to reduce an extensive backlog of maintenance in public housing.

Patrick has already set a cap of $160,000 on the salaries to housing directors. McLaughlin had boosted his pay to more than twice that level, in part by not disclosing on reports to the state that the board had ­approved numerous pay hikes.

Thomas Connelly, head of a group that represents housing authority executive directors and commissioners, expressed relief at the governor’s proposal.

The recommendations “are a far cry from the original premise of merging 30 local housing authorities into several regional entities of 5,000 units each,” Connelly wrote in an e-mail to members of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials. “Clearly the two MassNAHRO delegates on the 23-member commission made great strides in preserving local control and accountability,” he wrote.

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The proposed restructuring would have less impact on the state’s larger housing authorities in cities, where the board of commissioners is appointed by the mayor or city manager.

Gornstein said no decision has been made on how to structure the agency that would handle the increased oversight of small authorities. He said the state Division of Public Housing and Rent Assistance, with approximately 75 employees, would probably change its ­focus from day-to-day issues of assistance to local housing ­authority. Instead, it would ­focus on oversight and identification of management issues.

Among the other recommendations are mandatory ­annual independent financial audits of local housing authorities and requiring that authorities make public the names of board members.


Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.