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Commissioner tells what Housing Authority can -- and can't -- do
Brian J. Connor, a commissioner for the Arlington Housing Authority (AHA) who is the governor's representative, provided this information to help the public understand the authority.
I have had the honor to serve on the AHA board for nine years to date. My first five-year term was appointed by Gov. Romney, and I am serving my second five-year term appointed by Gov. Baker. I am a lifelong resident of Arlington.
While I thoroughly enjoy my position and believe my efforts on the board have made a difference, one thing has changed. Over the last eight months, there seems to be a heightened interest and participation in the AHA monthly meetings and a gross misunderstanding of exactly what this agency is and has done for almost 70 years. Let me explain ...
First, it is important to note, the AHA owns and manages more than 1,100 rental units where more than 2,000 people call home. These are divided among five separate developments, other apartments throughout the town, and federal Section 8 vouchers, which provide housing opportunities to persons and families in privately owned properties.
State agency, local name
The Arlington Housing Authority is in essence a state agency with a local name. The Town of Arlington and its Arlington town elected or appointed officials have no authority or control over this organization, except for local building codes or zoning regulations. The AHA is an independent public agency organized under MGL Chapter 121B, governed locally by its own board of state commissioners (four elected, one appointed), and while we like to think we have some power, the true oversight and power is held by the Massachusetts Division of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the federal agency, HUD.
AHA has discretionary control only on limited matters. DHCD sets all policies, mandates and regulations with which all state housing authorities must comply. DHCD approves all budgets, sets the pay rates for all employees, rental rates paid by tenants, rates landlords can charge for Section 8 apartments, the parameters for eligibility. As of last year, the state agency set and maintained the waiting list for eligible persons and families waiting for housing in any housing-authority facility throughout Massachusetts. As a heavily regulated state agency, little can be changed locally.
No longer do lifelong Arlington residents come to the front of the line. Homeless, indigent, persons displaced by the Hurricane in Puerto Rico and other categories of persons are first in line for public housing.
Contrary to belief, the AHA management cannot pick and choose for whom it provides housing for. It is carefully managed and directed by DHCD.
Number of applicants
As of this writing, on the state DHCD list are a total of 14,436 applicants requesting public housing in Arlington. This is composed of 11,086 families and 3,350 elderly persons. There are also 206,540 requests for the federal Section 8 Voucher Program statewide, of which 411 are requesting Arlington. Unfortunately, there are not enough housing opportunities in Arlington.
Second, DHCD encourages tenants to form local tenant organizations within their complexes to encourage socialization and to work with the management on issues that may arise. They specifically prohibit involvement in this process by the housing boards or management. Tenants must organize and elect officers all on their own.
They can seek out assistance from other organizations, such as the League of Women Voters or Arlington senior-citizens associations, and have done so prior. Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, Drake Village and Winslow Towers each have active tenant associations.
Menotomy Manor has not had one in many years, possibly due to its clientele, which include families with parents who work multiple jobs and juggle their children’s needs. My guess is they simply do not have the time, nor is there a leader who wants to step up and handle this project.
This is why the board took the initiative to build a community center on-site and coordinate the many after-school programs as well as various cookouts. However, with the addition of our newest board member, who resides in Menotomy Manor, perhaps her efforts to lead in this endeavor will be successful.
Effects of Covid
Prior to Covid, communication with the various associations and tenants has worked well. There were monthly meetings and many social activities, which management attended and supported, both financially and with physical assistance. Covid has brought this to a dead stop, even resulting in the Arlington Board of Health recommendation that we close all the community rooms and discourage any gatherings to help stop the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, we have no control over this and look forward to the end of this pandemic, so we can resume life as we knew it.
Third, the commissioners primary responsibility is to oversee the executive director, evaluate his performance and ensure the management complies with any and all state regulations and mandates, both operationally and financially.
As stated recently by our outside CPA firm and attorney, our balance sheet, operational and financial status is perhaps the best among the other state housing authorities. We also serve as a sounding board for our tenants and help resolve issues within our power and make recommendations within our boundaries. However, the board is specifically discouraged by DHCD to get involved in the day-to-day management of the agency or its tenants.
As for John Griffin, the executive director, I am the neutral party and offer my opinion as the nonelected official. I was on the hiring committee back then and instituted an exhaustive search and designed the decision matrix in order to rate the candidates. John topped the list, and in my opinion, other than his deficiencies in not returning phone calls promptly, has done a fantastic job. Those persons advocating for his removal and posting all sorts of attacks and slanderous things are wrong and totally undermine the many years of his achievements and commitment to our tenants.
Since his hiring in 2007, John has procured more than $20 million in funding for the AHA properties. Together with his staff, he has rebuilt and updated virtually every property owned by the AHA and continues to do so today. Also, under his direction, the AHA built a new community building, as mentioned, which also serves as a substation for the Arlington police at the Menotomy Manor.
This has created a tremendous bond between the police and the tenants. Unfortunately, Covid has brought our after-school activities to a halt as well. In the spring, we will embark on replacing the windows at Winslow Towers at cost exceeding $2.5 million.
However, as a landlord of 1,100 units providing housing for more than 2,000 persons, there will and continue to be challenges. Bed bugs, cockroaches and mice continue to show up in selective units and developments; we struggle with the habits of a small percentage of our tenants and continue to work with outside exterminators to eliminate these issues. This will always be work in progress, a challenge for any housing authority.
Changes at monthly meetings
Due to Covid and Zoom, our monthly meetings have gone from one to almost three hours and from six persons to close to 40 people attending via Zoom. Of those attendees, approximately six are tenants of the AHA. It seems many more people with no connection to the AHA suddenly wish to get involved.
Our meetings are becoming less productive, more argumentative, insulting and divisive. Remember, this is essentially a state agency with a local name; there is not much that can be changed.
Our collective goal should be to try and find additional housing opportunities and not attack the system in place; it works and there are very few complaints or issues.
The internet has become a platform for twisting the truth and in some instances telling outright lies. As we look forward to starting our lives over with the Covid vaccine, let’s try to start over with web posting, be respectful of each other, offer recommendations, tell the truth and step back and give the other side an opportunity to respond before you beat the drums.
I look forward to returning to in person meetings where perhaps we can have a more respectful, productive and civil monthly board meeting.
I am happy to continue the dialogue. Feel free to reach out to me at 781-953-6870 or bconnor at arlingtonhousing.org.
Dec. 16, 2020: Housing Authority introduces new member
This lengthy statement containing fact and opinion was published Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021.
Thank you so much for sharing this important information and context about the AHA. Having lived in Arlington for almost 30 years, I only recently became aware of the extent of the AHA, and certainly had only a very limited understanding of the relationship of the Town to the AHA.
Yes, your reference to the heightened interest over the last eight months certainly pertains to me--a very small silver lining of the Pandemic has been the opportunity to look around and become much more aware of the doings of my town and to get more involved. As you noted, the AHA provides residences to many who now more than ever need community support. And to that end, I have started attending the AHA's monthly meetings.
I noticed that during the last meeting's public forum almost all, if not all, of the speakers were residents, or former residents that had historic context to add to the discussion. Some number of the speakers were residents of Menotomy Manor, which as you noted, does not currently have a tenant organization. It's my understanding that forming a tenant organization is no small feat, with many regulations and steps required, and as you also noted, Menotomy Manor residents may have more pressing responsibilities, making it even more difficult for the residents to organize. I'm sure that the lack of a tenant organization shouldn't be a prohibition against Menotomy Manor residents speaking up and voicing their concerns.
There are at least two reasons though that I as a member of the Arlington community should attend the monthly AHA meetings. The most important one is that although AHA residents may live in housing that is managed by the State, they are still residents of Arlington, and therefore deserve our attention and concern as members of this community. The second is that some members of the AHA Board are elected by Town residents--in fact there is one board position up for election this coming April--and as such, we need to be informed about this elected position in order to make the best voting decision. Fortunately, it is my understanding that AHA monthly meetings are now being recorded by ACMI, so that is another way to become informed about the AHA.
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