By Andy Metzger
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Lawmakers a year ago began lining up behind an alternative to Gov. Deval Patrick's proposed consolidation of housing authorities, but their proposal remains a work in progress.
The Housing Committee indicated Tuesday it wants to spend more time, beyond a Wednesday deadline, to craft legislation reforming housing authorities. Gov. Patrick filed legislation (H 44) in early 2013 to consolidate the state's network of 240 public housing authorities into six regional authorities, arguing that the more centralized structure will allow for savings, greater oversight and better services for tenants.
Despite promises from House and Senate leaders to keep an "open mind," a near majority of lawmakers in March 2013 were lining up behind an alternative to Patrick's plan. That proposal is still in the works.
"We're still collecting further information on it. We plan on acting on that bill in a few weeks, but we're still talking to our colleagues and talking to other experts in the field to finalize the legislation," said Housing Committee Co-chairman Kevin Honan, a Brighton Democrat.
Honan and his co-chairman, Sen. Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said the bill would seek new means for housing authorities to develop land, better involve tenants in decision-making, and additional services for tenants.
A raft of lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors of bills (H 1094/ S 612/ H 1102/ H 1145) that would create a Collaborative Management and Service Agency under the Department of Housing and Community Development to help the independent housing authorities use "economies of scale."
"There are positive aspects of both bills, so it will be a compromise," Honan told the News Service.
Both chairmen traveled around the state visiting with housing authority directors, tenants and others, formulating ideas for how to improve the state's public housing system.
"In real estate obviously the land is one of the most valuable parts of the development, so we are still working on a way to bring in creative financing to allow housing authorities - working with non-profit developers and other developers and internally - to try and build more housing at the locations," said Honan. "There are over 60 housing authorities in Massachusetts that have additional land."
A former member of the Acton Housing Authority, Eldridge said he hopes the bill can provide more services and a greater voice for public housing tenants.
"It's not just looking at creating efficiencies and more accountability in public housing authorities, but it is also: How do we build more public housing? How do we make sure tenants are properly involved in the decisions that affect the services provided to them? And finally, what services are being provided tenants to help lift them out of poverty," Eldridge said. "So the mission has expanded through our hearings and our statewide tour."
Local housing authorities manage subsidized housing units made available through both state and federal housing programs. After clearing committee, bills would need approval of both House and Senate before reaching the governor's desk to be signed into law.
The committee voted to extend the deadline for the housing authority overhauls, along with a range of other bills.
Under bills approved Tuesday by the committee, people who are homeless would have a bill of rights and apprentice construction workers would have opportunities to work on foreclosed properties,
Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli is sponsoring the bill (H 3595) providing rights for homeless people. The bill specifies the right against discrimination and the right to access to public spaces and emergency health care, to privacy and to vote. New this session, the bill would also grant people the right "not to face discrimination" for being in a state of homelessness "while seeking or maintaining employment."
A Honan bill (H 1126) that didn't make it out of Ways and Means last session would establish an apprentice program for work rehabbing homes purchased under the national Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008.
"When you have a foreclosed property, you really want to fix that up before it becomes a blight on the community and drags down the price of other houses," Honan said. He said, "It builds neighborhood pride and it builds pride amongst the workers."
Bills (S 606/ S 615/ H 1092) filed by Sen. Richard Moore, Rep. Matthew Beaton and by request from a constituent, seek legislative help for condo residents "frustrated about the lack of transparency in the decisions that happen in the condo associations," Eldridge said. The bills would create a condo ombudsman, clarify the collection of condo fees and create a commission to study condo law.