Aging public units play key role in state’s housing puzzle

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BOSTON - With recent public debate focused on the lack of new and affordable housing and its impact on job growth, traffic congestion and others facets of daily life, public housing advocates reminded lawmakers on Tuesday not to neglect what the state already has.

“With such great demand for affordable housing, we need to preserve this very precious stock of affordable housing,” said Rachel Heller, the CEO of the Citizens’ Housing & Planning Association (CHAPA).

Heller said that Massachusetts is unique in having such a large stock of public housing, pegged at about 45,000 units, two-thirds of which are for seniors and the disabled. The waiting list to get into public housing is 160,000 deep, officials said in March.

“Unfortunately, much of our public housing portfolio has reached the end of its useful life, with much of it having been built before the 1960s,” Heller said. She said even the $600 million approved in a 2018 law for public housing and a proposed increase in this year’s state operating budget is not enough.

CHAPA and the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials are backing several proposals that they say will help, including one filed by Cambridge Rep. David Rogers to allow housing authorities to borrow money against their capital funds to pursue large rehabilitation projects.

Another bill filed by Rep. Dan Ryan of Charlestown and Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop would exempt public housing redevelopment projects from public bidding laws, which Heller said can add 20 percent to the cost of a project. Prevailing wage laws would still apply.

CHAPA board member Gloria Leipzig also testified in support of legislation filed by Housing Committee Co-chairman Rep. Kevin Honan and Boncore to create a process to have tenants appointed to local housing authority boards from a list of names drafted by public housing residents.

“A resident on the board provides not only a voice for the people we’re serving but a connection and reminder for all the board members about who we serve,” said Zeipzig, who serves on the Belmont Housing Authority.

Other bills designed to help housing authorities preserve and maintain their existing stock of housing would allow local authorities to keep the proceeds from the sale of property for the purpose of redevelopment rather than return the money to the state.