Governor Patrick’s plan to regionalize housing authorities

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The Boston Globe reports that Governor Patrick is proposing to replace the state’s local housing authorities with six regional housing authorities;. This is being done in response to several high-profile instances of corruption in the local authorities.

What struck me about the story was that debate/discussion on the Globe website is really not even possible anymore, because lunchpail conservatives just oppose everything. This is a plan that purports to save money and to eliminate corruption – but because it was proposed by Deval Patrick, the discussion is all about how this will allow him to give President Obama’s aunt free housing. How about we talk about the pros and cons of this in a reality-based way?

To start, local control is being removed. This could have some good effects and some bad effects, depending on your perspective. One knock on the myriad of housing authorities is that they are very provincial. The criticism I have heard is that the housing is being managed in an exclusionary way in more exclusive communities. A regional authority could break down this kind of local mentality. That is obviously good if you don’t live in an exclusive community, bad if you do.

Next point is housing development. I’m not sure how much the housing authorities get into this these days, but in the past the housing authorities were responsible for creating affordable housing. Again, the exclusivity thing kicks in – wealthier communities have much less family-oriented affordable housing, choosing to build senior housing instead (since the state guidance is only that 10% of a community’s housing stock be affordable, either by family housing or senior housing). A regional authority could break that mold too. That would obviously cause tremendous opposition from communities who want to keep the poor people out preserve the character of their towns.

Last point is Section 8 vouchers. Housing authorities manage these vouchers, which can be used in any community, but the currently portable Section 8 vouchers are still heavily concentrated in poor, urban communities. I think that this could be due to the provinciality of the housing authorities, but also because some perverse situations may exist in the system – the voucher values are calculated at a regional rate (to allow for the vouchers to be used in more expensive suburbs) but this results in high demand for them in poor urban areas because they are priced higher than market rents. Whatever the reason, the end result is significant economic segregation.

I’m sure there are many points I have missed, so I would enjoy having a discussion with reasonable people on this – not people who think that this is a way for Deval Patrick to appoint more friends to highly paid positions.


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56 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. I don't like the loss of democratic


    A lot of housing authorities seem to have problems with corruption and abuse. I served for 9 years on my town’s housing authority, and there were problems, but nothing nefarious. Our director was scrupulous about making sure that no one cut the queue in housing applications. The thing is that if people were unhappy with the way things they were going, they could complain to people they elected as well as the state and residents could and did run for the board.

    One of my friends told me that the aforementioned additional training meant board members would have to pay $150 to go to training.

    • How does it work?

      Mark – it would be good if you could provide insight on the functions of the housing authority. How did the queues work? What kind of housing was offered in your town? Did the housing authority seek to build more housing? How were applications from non-natives handles (i.e. can someone from a different town apply for housing?)

      • I live in Granby.

        Much different, as you know, from Springfield. We only have 40B units. Nothing federal. We have 50+ units of elderly housing with some disabled people mixed in the population. After about 20 years, the state finally completed 12 units of affordable family housing. Back in the late 1980s, the state agreed to build these units in Granby. Our housing authority had sought their construction back then. There was some kind of deal that the GHA would do some paperwork and handle some funds for other projects and the state would eventually pay for the new units. They were completed this year.

        The queues are supposed to be kept in a handwritten log so no one could mess around with the order. Over the years, I had people call me to see if I could get them bumped to the front, but I always told them no and our director always followed the rules anyway. If I understand the application process correctly, people from all over the state can apply. Preference is given to people who live in Granby or have family in Granby. I don’t know how that preference works. Whether there’s a point system or what. We’d sometimes get applicants from Eastern Mass, but they never came out here. I think they were part of a general application system.

        When the affordable family housing was built, some in town were worried that “those people” would move in. It ended up, however, that all the residents of that new complex were from originally from Granby. I never spent much time thinking about ways people could cheat the system. None of us was interested in doing so. It seems the guy in Chelsea gave himself an apartment. I suppose he could make money by taking kickbacks too.

        As an executive board, we were in charge of signing the checks for monthly expenditures. Because we were small, it was easy to go through the check warrant line by line. We knew our regular vendors and questioned any unfamiliar expenditures. The director could always provide back up material if we requested. We rarely needed to.

        Executive boards are always heavily dependent on their administrators explanation for things. That’s true in schools and in municipal government. With a large, complex housing authority, it could be difficult to question every expenditure, if that’s what happens in places like Springfield. It would be easier for a director to deal underhandedly and have a clueless or complicit board sign off.

        When I was on the GHA, our biggest problems were management and supervision. And tenant disputes. We had tenants that would fight with each other. We had a situation where tenants were stealing the toilet paper from the rec hall. We had a tenant who was on oxygen and kept blowing up his apartment when he smoked.

  2. question

    Article says: “eliminating the need for more than 1,000 politically appointed commissioners.”

    Is that 1,000 full-time jobs?

    • No. They serve as appointees.

      In my experience, there were 5 people on our Housing Authority. 1 was appointed by the state, 4 were elected. None of the positions were paid.

      • Your experience != statewide

        Governor Patrick will file legislation to eliminate compensation, where it exists, for LHA board members.

        MA Governor’s Budget 2013 Reforms to Local Housing Authorities

        • I'm paid about $3300 a year

          for being a selectman.

          I received no money for the 30-45 minutes a month I put in on the GHA. There was no town money going into our housing, which might be the source of paid housing authority members. The benefits I received were some good experience and some great times shooting the breeze with my fellow board members after the meeting.

          • What benefit would centralization offer?

            I see no value for tenants or taxpayers.

            Just the creation of another large faceless bureaucracy, unresponsive to stakeholders.

            • I'm inclined to agree, Roark.

              A housing authority is largely a landlord. Given that it’s administered with state funds, there’s also lot of paperwork.

              Hasn’t the Governor proposed similar consolidations? Unless there’s something we’re missing.

        • It varies widely

          In Natick, a few years ago board members were paid about $1,000 a year. A reform slate came in (led by my wife) and eliminated the payments. The payments came from the Housing Authority, not the town. My understanding is that other towns and cities pay significantly more, some as high at $10,000. Plus, sitting on a Housing Authority Board could extend years of service for town employees for pension purposes (although this may have been resolved during pension reform – and should be if it wasn’t).

  3. How does this square with 40B?

    My town has less than 10% affordable, and therefore is subject to an “unfriendly” 40B project. Other communities might have more than 10%. If the housing authorities are merged, how does that impact in which community new affordable housing is developed, and therefore which/when communities get their 10% to eliminate the risk of an unfriendly 40B?

    [I only know enough about affordable housing to know that its complex and I don't know much about it]

  4. Currently we elect part of our housing authority...

    …so am not sure whether it’s good or bad to lose that local input. Also, towns are responsible for zoning so it would seem to make sense that housing is their jurisdiction. Plus, government at any level has the potential for corruption, but also potential for great public service so I’m not sure how regionalization necessarily solves that problem.

    • I'd love a study

      on what percent of the local housing board elections are competitive. My bet is that its awfully close to 0%, suggestion the option but not the active participation of the locals.

  5. I know that Dracut has had contested housing races.

    Don’t know how close that is to the norm.

  6. Lowell has appointed

    and if I recall unpaid board members.

    Honestly it’s such a stupid point of contention in local politics (both legit and illegit) I’d be glad to see it regionalized.

    Just the other night we had a major scuffle over an appointment, which raised a sort of legitimate question, but at the same time, allowed the moron contingent to beat the crap out of the City Manager yet again.

    Unless I hear something really scary, I’m for this move. Get the local out of this sort of thing. It mostly causes messes.

  7. Kill the BRA once and for all.

    Unfortunately, the Boston Redeveopment Authority can only end if it decides to vote itself out of existence. The only way I would accept this is if Boston is granted NO EXCEPTION!.

  8. Counter Proposal from NAHRO

    By way of disclosure, I work for a Local Housing Authority (and we are honest and well-run). I am so happy to see a discussion here because I often feel that no one except the naysayers are paying attention. The issues are complicated involving ownership of assets and reserves on the one hand. On the other hand there are many functions that should logically be consolidated.
    The Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing & Redevelopment Officials(NAHRO) has issued a press release outlining their counter suggestion to the Governor’s proposal. It can be found at their website I can’t seem to imbed the ink. This is from the people on the ground doing the work everyday. I hope it adds to the discussion and that thoughtful people (such as are found here) will keep on top of this important issue.

    • Local control

      is overrated.

      I do not have an opinion about the Governor’s proposal, but all of the arguments against it (including the press release at NAHRO) just seem to asset local control as a general virtue.

      I am unconvinced. Now if someone can articulate specifically and exactly the sorts of things that local boards can do better, I am all ears.

      But just saying it’s “closer to the people” is bunk. 99% of the public does not track or understand what these boards do now, which is a source of real problems.

      • Local accountability

        Remember Middlesex County government?

        Large, regional housing authorities would become large, bureaucratic messes, distant from voters who can hold the authority members accountable at the ballot box. Talk about an opportunity for corruption and cronyism, far from any real accountability.

        I will wait and see what the proposal looks like, but I am skeptical.

        • Not sure your point?

          Wasn’t it terribly bloated and inefficient? Aside from the courts the Commissioners ran some parks and hospitals and they ran them poorly with few resources

        • Local School Systems are an example

          The larger they get the worse they get, we are lucky to have a town wide system, other parts of the country don’t have this system and in general the school systems are horrible.

          There are some example of badly run school systems in Massachusetts – the state does eventually step in, maybe not soon enough.

          Who will step in with the state messes up housing – no one.

          • Yes, an excellent example

            of a system that benefits from local governance. A dozen specific reasons come to mind.

            What are the specific reasons for housing boards to be local? I’m open to hearing them but so far opponents have just stuck to generalities.

            By the way: under the current system it seems to me that “no one” already steps in when things screw up, except perhaps when corruption rises to the level that brings in the Globe Spotlight Team.

            Hard to be more dysfunctional than that.

          • Evidence?

            The larger they get the worse they get, we are lucky to have a town wide system, other parts of the country don’t have this system and in general the school systems are horrible.

            If you account for income or other key indicators of student success, is this really true? Hawai’i, for example, has one school district. Statewide. That’s pretty dang big — almost 300 schools. Are they the worst?

            Evidence please…

            • MA = 8 HI = 28

              Lets see Massachusetts is 8th and Hawaii is 28 according to this study.

              or this study

              MA = 1 HI = 37

              Centralization results in loss of accountability. Be it private or public organizations.

              BTW – Even President Obama didn’t go to the Hawaii public schools.

              • Accountability is expensive

                Centralization also results in lower costs. In a reality-based world, we must strike a balance between the benefits of local control and the costs of that control.

                Massachusetts government is in serious financial straits because too many of us demand the benefits of local control while refusing to pay even the most basic costs. Those who advocate for local control should accompany that advocacy with equally strident calls for increased tax revenue to sustain it.

              • That is not evidence

                that’s an anecdote.

                Hawai’i seems to be the largest school district in the country, and yet they’re ranked 28th in education — not 50th. Haven’t you just provided evidence that you’re just making things up as you go, rather than asserting reality based commentary?

          • Only if you PAY RETAIL PRICES

            Local schools systems are expensive if they are to be any good.

            Like so many GOP voters nationwide, you seem eager to receive the benefits of those local school systems while simultaneously being loathe to pay the price that comes with that approach.

            • Other people pay for my school system ?

              Not in my town – we get very little state aid – and we pay a fair amount of money to the “T” without any direct service. The majority of our town’s budget come from property taxes, and the same is true of fire, police and public works.

              We have a top notch school system – and our funding per student is low.

              and you assume I’m a member of the GOP……………………….

              all so wrong……

              • You advocate expensive government and low taxes

                You make my point for me — “We have a top notch school system – and our funding per student is low.”

                Bingo. You consume retail and tax wholesale.

                You often advocate the delusions of the GOP here, specifically regarding tax policy. Your specific party membership is irrelevant to that observation.

            • Completely agree

              Local control v. centralized control makes little difference in public education. Its what you teach, how you teach it, and whether you fund it fully. For every town that funds it schools there are towns that fail to pass overrides and have issues. Melrose is a good example of a town with a great tax base that just does not fund its schools properly and its high school has overcrowding and other issues. Cambridge is another example where the schools are wonderfully funded but the how and what created significant achievement gaps that are only now being brought down thanks to a standardized curriculum. Local control in Belmont may mean great schools, in Wichita, KS it means your board is run by creationists and tea party activists that ensure the what is junk science and the how is answered with as little funding as possible.

              Every other industrialized country handles education at the federal level, sets national standards and curriculum, and funds it as a much higher percentage of GDP. If only war and prescription drug costs didn’t eat up our budgets, and if only ‘states rights’ had been fully quashed at Appomattox we might actually have an equitable education system.

              • Looks to me like we are only second to Switzerland

                What make a good school is not clear cut. I think locally control is hugely important – especially to the parents. We are not making machines but individuals. I want to know who my kids teachers are, and what they are teaching.

                • Irrelevant

                  I attended and graduated from public schools in Montgomery County, MD. My parents knew every teacher I had and what they were teaching. They (and I) knew the administration in the school, and — for that matter — the relevant players in the county. There was, after all, JUST ONE bureaucracy to navigate.

                  The premise that “local control” is needed for parents to know and influence their public schools is pure hogwash.

                • I don't understand your point

                  Are you saying that parents in large school districts won’t be allowed to know who their kids teachers are or what the curriculum is? If so, what makes you think that?

                • Chart explanation

                  For those like me who were confused by the large dollar amounts in the chart. It is the cumulative amount of money spent per student in the course of their education from ages six to 15 years (not really K-12 as labeled), so you can divide by ten to get the annual spending. I have no idea how they computed these numbers or whether they did anything to balance out the cost of living. Even within in the US cost of living differences may make large differences in how much it costs to hire teachers and other staff.

                  • Some more detail

                    Using the OECD data, Figure 1 compares K–12 education expenditures per pupil in each of the world’s major industrial powers. As you can see, with the exception of Switzerland, the U.S. spends the most in the world on education, an average of $91,700 per student in the nine years between the ages of 6 and 15. But the results do not correlate: For instance, we spend one-third more per student than Finland, which consistently ranks near the top in science, reading, and math.

                    More detail here

          • Not sure that is cause & effect

            Is it really the size of the school system that causes them to be bad or is it that larger school systems exist in densely populated cities with lots of low income families? If you took Boston’s system and split it up into separate neighborhood systems, would you really end up with better schools over all? I doubt it. There are plenty of small/medium sized towns in MA with not very good school systems.

            I have no doubt that larger systems do suffer more from problems with communication and bureaucracy but it is not a linear relationship.

            • 2 Harvard scholars tackled this subject

              They’re total quants. Marty West, Chris Berry.

              Basically: district size not a huge deal either way.

              “While there do appear to have been modest gains associated with larger districts created as a result of the consolidation movement, these gains were outweighed by the harmful effects of larger schools.”

        • Delusional and expensive

          Well-run local authorities are expensive.

          It appears to me that we see the same delusional thinking by all too many Massachusetts residents locally that we see playing out on a national scale — and pandered to by demagogues, especially from the GOP.

          The delusional thinking is that we can have 351 independent city and town school boards, police and fire departments, public works departments, and so on, and simultaneously slash taxes and cut government spending. In this case, we are talking 241 independent housing authorities — good people do NOT come cheap, and the sheer number of people employed by these make them ripe targets for corruption.

          It is delusional to believe that we can have all the benefits of intimate “retail” government and simultaneously peg taxes to sustain only “wholesale” operations.

          ANY government institution can become a “large, bureaucratic [mess], distant from voters”, and the more of those institutions we have the greater the likelihood of such failure. We invest enormous energy in GOTV efforts for major statewide and national efforts — I submit that only the tiniest fraction of voters even KNOWS what their local housing authority does, never mind who and how well qualified the candidates for it are. It appears to me that the current 240 authorities epitomize the specter of ” large, bureaucratic messes, distant from voters who can hold the authority members accountable” that you raise.

          The awful picture that you paint of those large regional housing authorities is precisely what we have with now with the far more expensive approach of having two hundred and forty of them.

          The best way I can think of to hold ANY organization accountable, public or private, is to limit it’s size. A private company that had HUNDREDS of outlying offices doing what six regional centers could do better would be sued by stockholders if it failed to consolidate.

          The myth of “local government”, as it is playing out in Massachusetts, is delusional given the unwillingness of Massachusetts voters to PAY FOR that local government.

  9. What does the reform do for the tenants?

    That should be the first question. The Globe article suggested that “nothing would change” for the tenants. There are public housing tenant organizations. Any reform involving their homes should also involve these groups, and at an early stage.

  10. How would this effect Section 8?

    Family members have had issues with housing authorities out in Marlborough regaridng Section 8 enforcement and I was wondering what changes to that this might bring. It seems to me if this increases affordable housing by ending NIMBYism than I am all for it. Our state has great schools and great services, but we have abyssmal affordable housing, public transit, and mental health care and we have to fix all three.

  11. SomervilleTom are you assuming a premise not in evidence?

    Several comments of yours on this thread talk about local control not being efficient or being expensive. I for one think that there are good arguments to be made for local jurisdiction on something like this, as well as schools (at least in terms of direct administration; I think standards should come from higher up.), but I also believe that we get what we pay for and as such we need to do what we have to to fund these things at appropriate levels. Just to be clear when you say we don’t want to pay for them you are not talking about me, or maybe others here.

    • I've said it was expensive

      Ten full-blown local school boards will cost more than one regional school board for the same level of oversight. In addition to pure cost, a proliferation of organizations that handle valuable assets also implies a proliferation of opportunities for corruption.

      Let me offer a simple real-world example: in many towns, members of the planning board are (a) unpaid (or receive very small stipends), (b) are residents of the town, (c) are not professional managers, and (d) make decisions with ENORMOUS economic consequences. In a working-class town, a developer who can steer five-figure contracts to friendly associates of planning board members exerts ENORMOUS leverage on seven-figure property decisions. Smart developers who can and do hire smart lawyers are perfectly able to do that within the constraints of the law. It costs money — real money — to counter that corrupting influence, however it is countered.

      I suggest that we see this dynamic playing out in housing authorities.

      Effective local control costs more.

      • Wasn't that the position of the loyalists

        That some great far away person/government official/king – knows what’s best for you.

        I would much rather vote or not vote for my neighbor on the planning board (which you do for planning board members) than have to accept the decision by someone anointed by the governor.

        Also zoning board decisions for good or bad can be appealed in court, so even if you bribe someone – you can have the decision overturned.

        Another example of a far away ruler is the 40B law , I’m somewhat supportive of it, but the power of the state is like the power a king wielded in the 1700 century. They can completely ignore local zoning, and environmental regulations. It’s a faceless bureaucracy that just stomps on a local community.

        BTW – just wondering – about centralized authority – how is the state keep up its building infrastructure. When I travel I see buildings that the state owns that a private owner would upgrade and rent, but because nobody is responsible just they just get ignored until they fall down.

        • Focus!

          We are talking about housing authorities in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the early twenty-first century.

          A regional housing authority is not an ocean away — more like a half hour. Those who care enough to know and involve themselves with their local housing authority can surely do the same with its regional counterpart.

          The fact remains that 251 separate local authorities will cost more, in aggregate, than their six proposed regional counterparts. The system we have is an utterly corrupt mess. I’m reasonably certain that if those who are clamoring for preserving the 251 current local authorities were to together advocate for raising taxes to pay the increased cost of this increased local control, the Governor would be more receptive to the proposal.

          This, of course, leads to a discussion of where the entire housing authority topic belongs in a prioritized list of competing places to spend/invest increased tax revenue — but that is surely a different thread.

      • We totally do

        I suggest that we see this dynamic playing out in housing authorities.

        Look no further than Cambridge, MA and Robert Healy and our development first, local concerns second strategy. And we totally determine scant affordable housing slots via political connections, and keep reducing the percentages due to NIMBYism. If Gov. Patricks proposal can reduce NIMBYism and the influence of local politicos and contractors I am all for it. As long as it doesn’t screw over people on Section 8, a question I asked several posts ago that no one has answered.

        • Legal Concern

          Is this law legal – you have 251 housing authorities, I’m assuming they are legal non-profit organizations – so with one swipe of the pen they will disappear, don’t think you can do that.

          I could be wrong – I don’t see this law passing – but I do agree so simple reforms are called for – maybe this is a feint to force some reforms ?

    • State Standards are great.

      I’m not so sure about federal standards, most of the US states are large enough to be EU countries. So let states set their own standards. I don’t want my kids to be following standards that might be appropriate to Mississippi or Alaska.

      BTW – I’ve supported the majority of the overrides in my town and was personally responsible for one. But at the local level I know where my/our money is going. Entire different story when it goes to that big pot in Boston or Washington, you don’t care where it comes from you just want some of it.

  12. This post was hijacked

    by education.

    • Sorry

      But I do think the analogy is informative, and like any meeting you get lost in the parenthesis.

    • Yet another ...

      Yet again, what could be a reality-based substantive exchange about how best to address important needs is turned into just another round of rightwing dogma and mythology.

      The current housing authority system epitomizes our corrupt and broken government. It is corrupt and broken because it has no oversight, controls significant resources, and employs thousands of (potential) voters. It is a case study in how “local control” translates to venal and philosophical corruption.

      Not surprisingly, when push comes to shove, our “conservatives” elevate dogma (the hysterical attempt to equate a regional housing authority with 18th-century kings) above matching tax revenue with public spending. We can have (expensive) local authorities, and increase taxes as needed to make that approach work, or we can have (affordable) regional authorities at lower taxes.

      We cannot have both.

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