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State rebukes Natick housing director, gives ultimatum

Posted by Megan McKee  August 26, 2011 12:52 PM

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In a harsh rebuke from the state, Natick Housing Authority's director was told to address major issues at the housing authority including a high vacancy rate, unpaid bills, and management issues or face further state intervention.

“There has been a serious decline over the past three years in the overall conditions of the NHA,” wrote Laura Taylor of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development in an Aug. 22 letter to Ed Santos, the housing authority's executive director. She cited “a serious lack of senior leadership” as the reason for the deterioration at the authority, which provides affordable housing to the elderly and disabled.

Santos did not respond to requests for comment.

“He needs to respond fully to the [state] in the time allotted. If he doesn't there will be consequences,” said Gina Govoni, chairwoman of the board that oversees the housing authority.

Santos has until Sept. 16 to submit a plan to the state that addresses the housing authority's dire fiscal situation, high vacancy rates, and lacking management practices. He has until Sept. 30 to submit a capital improvement plan.

The letter is the latest blow to Santos' leadership, and one of the issues--$358,000 in unpaid bills—was kept from the housing authority board until July, according to board members.

“We first sort of uncovered the lid about the deficit at our July meeting,” said Govoni. She said that at the meeting, Santos couldn't provide any details about the owed money under intense board questioning. She said the bulk of the money is owed to utility companies and contractors, and the board will get an itemized list next month.

Board member Jeanne Williamson Ostroff said news of the debt came as a“a total shock.”

This isn't the first time the Department of Housing and Community Development has gotten involved with the housing authority. In 2010, the agency held a tailored maintenance training and weekly check-ins to ensure maintenance staff did their jobs.

Govoni said the latest involvement was triggered when the housing authority's fee accountant called the agency. Santos and his assistant director had a meeting with the agency on Aug. 5, which was described by Taylor in her letter as a “frank and productive discussion.”

Included on Taylor's list of major issues was the housing authority’s 57 vacant units, which she wrote has a “direct impact on the financial strength of the NHA.” The housing authority, which has 422 units, is reliant upon rental income to cover its costs. The state has set 5 percent—or 21 units—as the maximum vacancy rate, with the goal of no vacancy.

The Aug. 22 letter also directed Santos to come up with a disciplinary process “based on the acknowledged poor performance of the maintenance supervisor and many of the maintenance staff.”

In March, the board issued a scathing review of Santos' work performance, citing his poor management skills, refusal to return phone calls to the board, over-reliance on the assistant director, and troublesome relationship with tenants. As an example, the evaluation cited Santos' use of the phrase “you people” and “those people” when referring to protected classes of residents.

That was his first performance review “in recent memory” according to the evaluation, even though he's had the agency's top job since 1984.

In early 2010, tenants criticized Santos for ignoring their safety concerns. And in 2008, the state auditor's office published a report that highlighted vacancy issues and thousands of dollars in undocumented credit card transactions.

Govoni said that Santos is in the midst of a five year-contract that expires in 2013. She said the board can take disciplinary action if he fails to meet the duties outlined in his contract, or fails to meet the state's latest requirements of him.

Govoni has been on the board for three years. Since she was appointed, the board has seen complete turnover from its previous incarnation which included some members who had been serving for decades.

Megan McKee can be reached at megan.mckee@gmail.com.

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