Opinion: Let's Modernize, Reform Mass. Public Housing

  • Comments (9)

AUBURN, Mass. — Our public housing system in Massachusetts is a conglomeration of 240 local housing authorities charged with providing a place to live for 130,000 of our most vulnerable residents – including the elderly, people with disabilities, low-income families and veterans.
For too long, living conditions for these families and individuals have depended on the capability and leadership of the local housing authority. In most cases, these local entities have capably met the needs of their residents working with sometimes limited public resources. But in other cases, some high-profile and some subtle, housing authorities have been unable to overcome their limitations and inefficiencies, leading to high numbers of vacant units, slow repair times and, in some cases, poor record-keeping and management accountability.

Our friends and neighbors who depend on this affordable housing should have the best possible system in place to enhance their quality of life.

Governor Deval Patrick has proposed to modernize, transform and professionalize operations of the state’s housing authorities by consolidating the 240 separate authorities into six regional housing authorities.

My 30 years of working in the housing industry has taught me that the two most important principles of successful affordable housing are that it is developed and governed in partnership with local communities; and that it has professional, responsive and highly efficient property management. Combined, these principles result in a system that will best serve residents, local communities and the Commonwealth.

The governor’s legislation recognizes these best practices by including provisions that preserve local control over land-use decisions, ensure highly professional operations and resident services and generate cost savings that can be reinvested in public housing.

Best practice is also built on highly responsive and personalized services to residents, and on the purchase of local goods and services that typically offer the least costly and most timely option. In the governor’s plan, Regional Housing Authorities (RHAs) will employ local site staff in every community to provide face-to-face services to residents, collect rent, clean common areas, maintain the grounds and make routine repairs. Site staff will be backed up by experienced regional staff that will provide supervision, guidance, management and innovation. Also, the RHAs will be able to purchase modern equipment, technology and systems for use in every community

Local government will remain strong partners and have control over land use and development decisions, and can opt for a locally appointed Local Housing Board. Local communities play a vital role in shaping affordable housing and that is why the governor’s legislation strengthens this critical role. Local control means having control over decisions that impact local communities, not about control over which accounting or payroll system to use.
Besides improved services for tenants, the regional housing authorities are projected to save the Commonwealth upwards of $10 million annually that can be reinvested into housing by consolidating administrative functions such as accounts payable, procurement and human resource management; utility savings through combined rate negotiation and bulk purchasing; and regionalizing capital project management practices including the purchase of expertise, materials, equipment and services to maintain units. Equally important, with the broad range of expertise available to all housing authorities in the region, more timely preventative maintenance will head off costly capital repairs and vacant units will be able to be turned around quicker, allowing those units to be rented to qualified families.

Change can be difficult, but modernizing and reforming our system will make government work better. The majority of our housing authorities do the best they can with what they have: good intentions but limited resources; inadequate staff capacity; antiquated systems; and dedicated boards that often lack training and technical assistance.

Whether our fixes are targeted at those housing authorities that are well-intentioned but still struggling, those that are just getting by, or at those that are plagued by mismanagement — public housing tenants, local communities and the Commonwealth deserve more. We can and must do better.  

Aaron Gornstein is the Patrick-Murray Administration’s Undersecretary of Housing and Community Development.

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Comments (9)

Devil is in the details of this. I think economies of scale are obvious when you centralize and try to eliminate redundant positions; there should be savings there. But how do you remain sensitive and responsive to the local needs of residents and towns? I think having local representation into the decision making is important. but for infrastructure and administration bureaucracy probably needs to be cut. Leveraging technology for administration is an obvious area. Privitization is OK but not if profit is the priority over serving needs there needs to be a check and balance there

Yes, as I stated earlier I don't know anything about this, and I can't possibly pretend to.
I am concerned about the impacts of a re-structuring like this though, because it will be taking powers away from the towns and citizens. People in public housing are part of their local community; so, in my opinion, it would be in their best interest to have public housing managed by that same community, rather than some consolidated, out-of-touch office.

No public housing.


Just because he says no "public" housing doesn't mean he wants to leave people on the street, right? I would be curious to see if Alladin has some alternate solution, though.

Personally, I'm ok with some well-run public housing (in urban areas, I think public housing has made conditions worse than the slums that were replaced). I would like to see a crackdown on fraud though.

Ultimately, these are real people who need a place to live, and it's a good thing to help them get back on their feet. On the flip-side, the people who really need the help shouldn't have to compete with those trying to take advantage of the system.

Also, I think social security will be depleted by the time I retire... oh well.

Simple. NO MORE. Privatize this and get the government out of any area the private sector can do better.

If you privatized it, wouldn't you still have to have some sort of town/state inspection staff to ensure that everything is safe, accountable, etc.? You'd have to be sure that the private agency isn't just pocketing the $$$ and not maintaining the housing.

I tend to agree, but did you have something specific in mind for healthy privatization?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. However, your opinion is weak at best. I too have been associated with local housing authorities for thirty years. Plus, I was born and raised in public housing. I believe I have a unique view of the state of our public housing for many, many years both as a resident and a local citizen trying to pay back the benefits of my youth. I do not share your opinion that more government is necessary. There have been two high profile executive problems which have made the press. In fact there is process in place already which would have identified the situation had it not been criminally covered up. The overwhelming majority of local housing authorities are operating well above the standards already in place. The Governor's plan kills jobs - local jobs. Local directors and local maintenance staff are FIRED and then "invited" to re-apply for a regional position. LOCAL control of housing is lost - the five member board of LOCAL housing commissioners who oversee housing in their LOCAL city or town are gone and replaced with more government control. This is a bad plan - a VERY bad plan and people at a grassroots level need to speak up and say NO to big government's unwelcome and unnecessary intrusion on a caring, informed, and compassionate LOCAL operation. We are doing just fine Mr Governor. Change for the sake of change is contrary to an efficient locally run operation.

Interesting to read about this proposal as well as the potentially negative impact to local housing. I had no idea about any of this.

Personally, I feel that the town level is a more basic building block (individuals and families being the most basic, of course), so they would probably know better about what their town's housing authority needs.

Having 6 districts may work well for the roads, but that's a matter of regional commerce and prosperity. This seems like an issue that would be highly sensitive to very localized housing needs. The more powers the town gives up, the less power individuals have in their immediate community... and once you give a power to the state, good luck getting it back.