Paul Mackey, deputy director of the Somerville Housing Authority, predicts Gov. Deval Patrick's plan to reform housing authorities in Massachusetts may look different after months of debate and discussion.
Mackey was speaking about the governor's proposal, announced Jan. 10, that would eliminate the the state's 240 local housing authorities and replace them with six regional agencies.
"We still haven't seen it," Mackey said about the official proposal.
The plan would likely save the state millions of dollars, but Mackey said, "The devil's in the details."
The deputy director seemed a little blindsided by the governor's proposed reforms.
He said a commission had been working on reform ideas for a while, and those ideas included calls to consolidate the state's smaller housing authorities—ones that exist in small towns and manage relatively few public housing units.
"There really was some steam to get that done," Mackey said.
"At the last minute, apparently … the governor made a decision to include all 240 housing authorities" in his reform proposal, Mackey said, making reference to press reports he read about the matter.
Consolidating large housing authorities 'not easy'
Consolidating large housing authorities, like the ones in Boston, Somerville and Medford, would not be so easy, Mackey said.
The Somerville Housing Authority manages six federally funded public housing facilities and nine state-funded facilities, the deputy director said. They range in size from the Mystic River Development, which has 240 units, to smaller buildings that have only a few units.
In all, the Somerville Housing Authority oversees about 1,453 units of public housing that are home to around 4,000 residents, and it has approximately 82 employees, Mackey said. He said the authority manages an annual budget of about $27 million, which includes federal, state and Section 8 funding.
The Boston Housing Authority, by way of example, manages around 3,500 public housing units, according to the Boston Globe.
Talking about housing authorities in bigger cities like Boston and Somerville, Mackey said, "It's not easy to consolidate those things."
He predicted "a good year of debate" about how to reform public housing administration in the state. "Obviously, we support things that would make it more efficient," he said.
However, he thinks it's "going to take a long time" to have that debate.
Mackey also agreed that local housing authorities have been getting a bad reputation in the press thanks to recent stories.
In particular, Michael McLaughlin, former director of the Chelsea Housing Authority, resigned after reports that he earned $360,000 a year and used millions of dollars in public funding to benefit himself and his family, according to the Boston Globe, which also reported about abuses in other local housing authorities.
(The director of the Somerville Housing Authority earns $160,000 a year, Mackey said.)
"Clearly there were wrong things going on," Mackey said, talking about some of those press reports.
"The Chelsea thing has been out there for a long time, " he said, adding that many people agree the state needs to "bring justice to bear in that one really blatant case."
When you think of the "good work you believe you're doing … it does make you say, 'Wow,'" he said.
"You've got to develop a lot of thick skin with it," he said.
Politics of reform
WBZ, Boston's CBS affiliate, reported there could be political pushback to Patrick's proposed reforms.
Mackey said, "I can't imagine a lot of mayors will want to give up that guidance they get" from housing authorities based in their home communities.
It's easier for a mayor to pick up the phone and reach the Somerville Housing Authority than it is to call a regional office based in Boston, he said.