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.