By Gintautas Dumcius
State House News Service
BOSTON -- Local housing authorities will come under new oversight and accountability measures, under a bill Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law on Wednesday.
The legislation, H 4374, creates a performance-based monitoring system with uniform assessment standards for the operation of local housing authorities, which came under scrutiny after the former executive director of the Chelsea Housing Authority was found rigging inspections and underreporting his salary in 2011.
The legislation gives the state Department of Housing and Community Development, DHCD, the ability to review executive director contracts and terms of compensation, to strike provisions, and to terminate an executive director.
The bill also allows for the establishment of new guidelines for "chronically poor performing" authorities and the local position of chief administration and financial officer, who would oversee the authorities designated as under-performing.
Under the bill, housing authorities are also directed to create a website with contact information, housing authority directors must receive training, and housing authority boards must have a tenant representative.
The bill Patrick signed differed significantly from the bill he filed in 2013, which called for the consolidation of 240 housing authorities into six regional agencies in order to increase efficiency and accountability.
Housing authority advocates and lawmakers balked, saying the governor's proposal went too far and arguing local control should be preserved. The compromise legislation allows DHCD to establish a program that could provide capital, technical assistance, maintenance and repair planning to authorities in order to capture "economies of scale" through increased collaboration in bulk purchasing, capital planning and capital projects.
Michael McLaughlin of Dracut, the former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director who is serving a three-year prison term for concealing his $360,000 salary, was sentenced to an additional 12 months in prison in June for rigging inspections of federally funded housing units. McLaughlin, who held the job from 2000 to 2011, was also investigated for allegedly illegal fundraising ties to former Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray and a mayoral candidate in Lawrence in 2009.
Before signing the bill, Patrick noted that 46,000 low-to-moderate income families and seniors are served by state-aided public housing authority units.
"The stewardship of those assets must be responsible and those who are stewards must be accountable for that stewardship, and this bill, soon to become law, enhances that stewardship with some new tools, some new rules, some new levels of accountability," he said.
Sen. James Eldridge, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, referred to public housing authorities as "often the last social safety net for many low income families, for disabled individuals and the elderly throughout Massachusetts."
"We need to make sure that that safety net stays strong but also that it focuses on some of the innovations that are desperately needed in many of the housing authorities," Eldridge, D-Acton, said.
Lorelee Stewart, a tenants rights advocate at the Salem Housing Tenants Association, called the legislation a "fair" compromise.
Stewart said what occurred in Chelsea was not an anomaly, adding that there had not been enough checks and balances in place to assure accountability was in place before the former executive director was caught through a Boston Globe report.
"It's a massive job for DHCD but ... I really feel that after such a long process, that all parties involved feel this is something they can live with," she said of the bill.
On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials voiced its support for the bill signed by Patrick.
"The retention of local governance, control, accountability and support is an affirmation of the efforts of those local public officials who put their reputations and personal credibility on the line to get public housing built, often with withering NIMBY opposition," Thomas Connelly, the group's executive director, said in a statement.
The bill-signing was also attended by Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, and Housing Committee co-chair Rep. Kevin Honan, D-Brighton) as well as Reps. Jay Livingstone, D-Back Bay, Dave Rogers, D-Cambridge, and Donald Wong, R-Saugus. Greg Bialecki, Patrick's secretary for economic development, and Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary of housing, were also present.