CHA Fallout

National organization will not strip awards

Two national awards hung prominently on the office walls of former, now disgraced, Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Executive Director Michael McLaughlin.

Allegedly, McLaughlin pointed to those awards frequently as an example of the progress made at the Authority and his role in that progress. During the course of his shocking unravelling recently, many close to him said the national awards were one of the main reasons that they were led to believe he ran a completely upright ship.

Now, the national organization that gave him those awards has told the Record that they will not take them away despite the situation that has unfolded regarding McLaughlin and his questionable leadership of the Authority.

A spokesman for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (NAHRO) said that they are well aware of the situation in Chelsea and they feel that the awards were not McLaughlin’s, but rather the entire CHA.

“At this time we’re not reconsidering those awards,” said John Bohm, director of public affairs for NAHRO. “They were given in 2003 and 2006 and they were Awards of Excellence that were for the Authority and not for an individual.”

The first award for the CHA under McLaughlin’s tenure came in 2003 and was for a Management Excellence Program that specifically dealt with budgeting by the administration of the CHA – notably McLaughlin, who is listed as the contact on both NAHRO awards.

“Through zero-based budgeting, this stripped the Authority back to its essentials, redefined its goals and mission and rebuilt the agency from the ground up,” read a summary of the 2003 award. “It went from a ‘troubled’ agency that was not serving the needs of tenants to a ‘High Performer.'”

In fact, the federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did move CHA from its troubled list in 2003, and certified it as a high-performing agency, which triggered the award.

Meanwhile, in 2006, the CHA received a second award from the national NAHRO.

That award was much more vague in its summary and concerned community policing programs in the CHA.

“The CHA has developed a wide variety of programs and services in the area of public safety for its residents beyond the nuts and bolts of preventing and investigating crime,” read the summary for the 2006 award. “The CHA has taken a very pro-active stance in policing in terms of reaching out to the residents and the community in working on developing and maintaining an efficient and effective presence in the apartment complexes and neighborhoods.”

There were no specifics of the program included in that summary.

“We gave those awards to recognize innovation, achievement and productiveness,” said Bohm. “That’s the extent of our recognition here on the two awards. I really don’t have a comment on the further developments that are going on at this time.”

Meanwhile, the awards in and of themselves might be a bit overstated – especially by those like McLaughlin who direct housing authorities.

Housing authorities can self-nominate for the awards and the national organization chooses based upon the merit of the idea through a submission process. There, apparently, are no detailed investigations of these programs and – more or less – the catalog of winners is a best-practices resource for those in the industry. In fact, the explanation of the awards by NAHRO indicates that they are for the purpose of letting other professionals know about programs and also for lobbying purposes in regards to HUD program funding.

Some of the other national awards given out in 2003 and 2006 were:

•An award for a housing authority in Colorado that transformed its community rooms into a haunted house for Halloween.

•Several authorities were given awards for having health fairs.

•The authority in Miami was given an award for hiring a mobile billboard company to drive around that city advertising that the housing authority wait list was opening up.

•An award was bestowed upon the Kansas City, Kansas housing authority for conducting an Easter Egg hunt for low-income children and senior citizens.

There are literally hundreds of awards given out through the program, and they are not awarded on a competitive basis.

The McLaughlin Amendment?

The new federal public housing budget was approved in Washington, D.C. this week and it had one peculiar new stipulation within it – a cap on how much housing authority directors nationwide can be paid.

Locally, many have taken to calling this the ‘McLaughlin Amendment,’ paying homage to the more than $350,000 that former CHA Director Michael McLaughlin was receiving as compensation when he was forced to resign.

The federal budget amendment stipulated that no housing director in America can be paid more than $160,000.

“I think his situation contributed to that certainly,” said Tom Connelly, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials (MassNAHRO). “Everyone who has federal programs, whether regular public housing or Section 8 – for the 2012 fiscal year – no one can make more than $160,000. We’ll probably have to call this the McLaughlin Amendment.”

Connelly served closely with McLaughlin, who was on the MassNAHRO board for many years and worked closely with the organization in a number of capacities.

He said virtually everyone in the organization’s membership, which counts 242 housing authority officials, is disgusted, shocked and outraged.

“It’s hard to believe all this went on as long as it did without being discovered,” Connelly said. “No one outside of Chelsea and the Chelsea Board knew he was making anywhere near that kind of money. It’s unfortunate because it doesn’t reflect well on many of the other 240 housing authority officials – most of whom are underpaid for what they do. I’ve been here 32 years and I’ve never seen anything like this. We’re here to serve and help vulnerable populations like the elderly, low income families and veterans, not to serve as a way for individuals to be made rich.

“I can’t believe the Board – the actual Board members including the governor’s appointee, went along with this,” he continued. “It’s amazing, just amazing, and sad.”

Connelly said it was particularly unfortunate because McLaughlin actually did turn around the CHA when he came in, ridding it of persistent problems and turning it into a federally-designated ‘high performer.’ That was one of the reasons that he became so involved and well respected in MassNAHRO, Connelly said.

Now, though, he said that the organization fully supports the decision to put the CHA into receivership.

“We would like to see this cleared up as soon as possible,” he said. “We do have a job to do in serving the poor and vulnerable populations in terms of their housing needs.”

McLaughlin’s last term on the Board of MassNAHRO expired at the end of 2010.

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