JACKSON SQ.—The Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation (TMC) has agreed to take the first official steps within the next three months to essentially become an independent housing authority instead of a Boston Housing Authority (BHA) subcontractor. That would make the TMC the first and only such public housing tenant organization answerable only to the federal government.
“We’re going to be almost like another housing authority,” said TMC’s David Worrell.
But the agreement comes amid a controversy over TMC’s current contract with the BHA, now surviving under relatively short extensions. The controversy highlights the tensions that lie behind TMC’s independence proposal, BHA Administrator Sandra Henriquez publicly acknowledged for the first time in a Gazette interview.
“Yes, we have had some philosophical disagreements,” Henriquez said.
Those tensions may also be reflected in renewed controversy over the BHA’s trespassing notice policy—a controversy centered on Bromley-Heath.
At the same time, the TMC and BHA say, they continue to have a good day-to-day relationship in operating the housing development. The BHA recently proposed a new round of extensive energy-related upgrades to the development.
It was revealed in January that the TMC and BHA have been working on a petition to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to request that HUD directly fund and oversee Bromley-Heath.
Currently, the BHA is essentially the landlord of the development, and TMC is the property manager. TMC is already rare in that respect—one of only two such organizations in the country, according to HUD.
Under the new proposal, HUD would be asked to take over the BHA’s role, and in practice TMC would have even more responsibility, since HUD is so remote. The BHA would still have some limited involvement with the development.
Both TMC and BHA still seem happy with that general idea. In the most recent extension of its expired management contract, TMC agreed to request a meeting with HUD about the proposal by May 13, and set a meeting date by the end of July.
It is those current contract extensions that are controversial. Worrell said they are too short, leaving the TMC without stability and perhaps set up to fail. He noted that the current extension was originally proposed as three months and extended to six months “solely at [state Sen. Dianne] Wilkerson’s request,” in the BHA’s language.
In a blistering April 11 e-mail sent to TMC supporters, Worrell likened Henriquez to “the wicked whitch of the west” [sic] and said the BHA’s “primary function is to knock down anything that we do.”
“If you’re really sincere about this thing, why are you only offering a three-month contract?” Worrell said in a Gazette interview. “You don’t need to micromanage us.”
He said the short extensions raise the specter of another BHA takeover of the development like the one in 1998 that nearly dissolved TMC.
“Something’s going on, because we’re being treated differently [from] other management companies and BHA managers,” Worrell said. “We worry on a daily basis they’re going to say one day, ‘You’re out of here’—that we come in one morning and the locks are changed. It’s hard for the staff.”
For example, it’s unclear what happens if HUD is unable to agree with a TMC meeting by the contract’s deadline. BHA spokesperson Lydia Agro did not have an immediate answer to that possible dilemma.
Henriquez acknowledged proposing a short contract extension, but explained it was meant to prod TMC, not undermine it.
“That’s because I was trying to get faster movement on the HUD petition,” she said, explaining for the first time that while the HUD oversight idea was made public a few months ago, it actually originated in January, 2006. BHA even provided TMC with a draft petition at that time, she said.
Henriquez also revealed that, while the BHA previously described the HUD oversight proposal as a mutual idea, it actually “came from us.”
She added that it has always been “explicit” that BHA would continue to offer regular contract extensions “unless and until there’s a decision by HUD about the joint petition.”
Henriquez offered a much fuller description of the HUD proposal idea and history, revealing that much of the previous public understanding of it was incorrect or incomplete.
While TMC and BHA are referring to the proposal as a “joint petition” to HUD to highlight BHA support, “The petition has to come from Bromley,” Henriquez revealed. That’s because under HUD regulations, a TMC must directly request such oversight. It means that BHA has little direct control over when the proposal is sent to HUD.
Worrell acknowledged that formulating the proposal is technically challenging, especially since direct HUD oversight of a TMC has never been done before. He said new procedures will have to be invented, and some strangely worded federal regulations have to be figured out.
In January, the BHA said TMC was not meeting the “performance standards” of its contract in unspecified ways. That was depicted as the backdrop for the HUD petition, with TMC facing either HUD oversight or a BHA takeover of the development that would essentially mean the end of TMC.
But, Henriquez said, they are actually separate issues. Asked if BHA still believes there are contractual violations, she declined to respond beyond saying, “I think it’s a disservice if I air issues like those in the press.”
The actual motive for the HUD oversight idea, Henriquez said, is that TMC and BHA simply don’t get along.
“We thought TMC would seize this as a way to prove their mettle…It seemed to us to be the next logical step,” she said. “I think that they chafe under the BHA’s direction. I believe that they would be happy to spread their wings out from under the housing authority.”
Henriquez added that she thinks TMC has the ability to operate independently, and expressed sympathy for its point of view as she understands it.
“They come from a perspective that back in the early ’70s [when the TMC was founded], the housing authority was a much different organization than it is now,” Henriquez said. “I’ve seen pictures of hundreds of broken windows and seeming abandonment of that property.”
“Maybe it’s an issue of growing pains,” she said.
“We’re still working basically well together,” Worrell said of TMC and BHA. “It’s a good working relationship. It’s just these bigger issues [that are problems].”
Another one of those big issues is the BHA’s recently revised trespassing policy for its developments.
As the Gazette reported last year, Bromley-Heath was the center of controversy over police allegedly arresting or warning residents or their invited guests as trespassers, and related constant ID checks of residents. Even some police officials, including the local police captain at the time, expressed concern about the policies.
The modified policy includes a new review process for trespassing notices conducted by the chief of the BHA Police.
But this has created so much new controversy that City Councilor Chuck Turner has called a City Council hearing about the policy. He told the Gazette he’s heard concerns about “civil rights and civil liberties” of residents, as well as calls for a stricter policy.
The public complaints have mostly come from various civil liberties activists. But, Worrell said, TMC also sent a critical letter during the public comment period.
“I think the gist of it is, there is too much vagueness in the policy to ensure consistent and fair application of the policy,” Worrell said. “If you appeal [a trespassing notice], you go to the chief of the Housing Police, who you would think, as a rule, would support his officers.”
“If there is a problem with the system, as there is, we think there should be an independent—[but] not completely independent—review committee,” Worrell said.
For its part, the BHA expressed astonishment that advocates are
complaining about the very trespassing review process they requested.
“I’m baffled,” Henriquez said. “I think it’s become very emotionally charged.”
And, she said, she’s noticed one obvious hot spot. “I think the only negative comments we’ve gotten about it have come from one development, Bromley, and nowhere else in the city,” she said. “And I don’t know what to make of it.”
Henriquez noted that that basic trespassing policy is simply what the law allows any property owner to do, and that the new review policy is not something legally required.
Noting that other landlords freely use trespassing laws to protect apartment buildings, Henriquez said of law-abiding BHA tenants, “I won’t accept a different standard for them because they’re poor.”
“We [issue] trespass [notices to] people not because they’re on their way to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving on Sunday afternoon,” Henriquez said, adding that the idea of the policy targeting innocent youths is “offensive.”
She also noted that even if someone is banned from the property, they can still go to a specific apartment as an invited guest. And, the new review policy aside, they can also contact the BHA to request a lifting of the ban.
Among lesser objections to the new policy is its blanket five-year ban
on the person cited. Worrell argued that relatively minor offenses should result in shorter bans.
Henriquez said trespass notices used to last forever, and that the five-year figure is a reduction requested by the police commissioner. She said most trespass notices receive internal review sooner than five years anyway.
The actual buildings of Bromley-Heath are one area where TMC and BHA appear to get along.
The BHA recently announced a proposed new round of energy-conservation upgrades to the development. It would include new decentralized heat/hot water systems; high-efficiency toilets; new lighting; weatherstripping; better apartment doors; and new piping and electric meters.
Some buildings previously received such upgrades. Some of the work is part of the replacement of the development’s two central steam-powered heating systems, including a giant boiler in Bromley Hall.
The work is done under the “Energy Performance Contracting” program where private companies do the work and provide maintenance in exchange for a fee derived from the utility cost savings resulting from the upgrades. It’s one of several ways the BHA works around its repeatedly slashed federal funds.
It’s part of an overall BHA facility upgrade plan called “An Approach to Preservation.” Public comments are being accepted through June 1 at Lydia_Agro.bostonhousing.org or Adminstration Department, BHA, 52 Chauncy St., Boston, MA 02111.