ACT rejects Governor's public housing reform bill

by Cheryl-Ann Pizza-Zeoli

FRIDAY, MARCH 8, 2013—On January 10, 2013, Governor Patrick filed a bill to consolidate the state’s 240 housing authorities into just six Regional Housing Authorities (RHAs). The Board of the Alliance of Cambridge Tenants (ACT) has voted to oppose the Governor’s bill.

The ACT Board’s March 2 vote expressed concern that the Governor’s proposal would harm the public housing and voucher programs and the rights of residents:

• By overriding local oversight, it undermines political support for housing programs

• It undermines the ability of tenants to organize and advocate for their neighbors

• It calls into question the contracts and future rights of the public housing workforce

Under the Governor’s plan, each RHA board would have nine members – six housing professionals, two tenant representatives and one labor representative – all appointed by the Governor. The tenant reps would be chosen from a pool of nominations submitted by recognized local public housing tenant organizations or councils in the region (one name per council). There would be no seats for voucher tenants. ACT would not be able to nominate a candidate to serve on the regional board.

What would happen to local control? Cities and towns would have the option of creating local housing commissions. The new commissioners would be residents of that city or town but not necessarily include any public housing or voucher tenants.

The local housing commission would have the power to approve certain actions of the RHA—such as sale of a development, sale of land, change in use of a building—and to provide advice on and review the annual operating and capital plan. If a city or town decided not to have a local housing commission, it would fall to the local planning board to be the local decision-makers.

Under a regional structure, it would become almost impossible for local tenant organizations like ACT to engage in policy discussions or assist tenants with grievances. The working relationships we have built with CHA staff would be marginalized.

The Governor’s bill ignored the recommendations of his own public housing reform commission which had proposed consolidating management functions of smaller housing authorities while retaining local housing authorities with their boards.

The Massachusetts chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) strongly opposes the Governor’s bill. They make the point that all housing authorities shouldn’t take the rap for what happened in Chelsea.

NAHRO has filed a counter-proposal that uses a collaborative approach; larger housing authorities would negotiate management and service agreements with smaller and medium sized authorities.

It’s not exactly clear how regionalization would work for the state’s two local Moving To Work (MTW) housing authorities, Cambridge and Holyoke. MTW is a federal (HUD) program that allows some local housing authorities to operate under their own special rules. Would CHA be “consolidated” into one of the new regions? If yes, would CHA get to wag the dog in that region and set policy for other communities?

At the January 23 meeting of the CHA Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Jim Stockard announced, “I’m a fan of this leap.” The current management system is “silly.” Texas is the only state with more housing authorities than Massachusetts. As Stockard noted, he was “not in quite the same place” as CHA Executive Director Greg Russ. Stockard, who is the Governor’s appointee on the CHA Board, declared that he would pick Russ as one of the six regional directors.

According to Russ, HUD is making noise about regionalizing housing authorities across the country. Some small housing authorities have already given their voucher programs back to HUD, which is a type of economic regionalization. Russ predicted, “What Massachusetts does will influence what happens nationally.”

So far there is little support in the legislature for Governor Patrick on this one. CHA officials have told us the bill is “dead in the water.” Several observers say they expect the political bickering to go on for the eighteen months remaining in the current legislative session. They believe the outcome will be some sort of compromise.

There is no doubt that the Governor has set off a debate about the real meaning public housing “reform” among housing advocates, residents, organizers, and professionals. The Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), the state’s broadest housing policy umbrella group, has produced a useful summary comparing the provisions of the Patrick and NAHRO bills with the recommendations of the Governor’s Commission.

You can read the CHAPA summary here.

Rep. Kevin Honan, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, plans to hold legislative hearings on the bills in seven communities across the state.