New Mel King Training Helps Public Housing Residents Find Their Voice

Residents of public housing have long been fighting for a voice in decision-making at their Local Housing Authorities. In 2014, residents and their advocates scored a big win when Massachusetts passed a new law requiring each Local Housing Authority (LHA) to have a resident on its Board of Directors.

The law also requires training for residents, and to address this need the Mel King Institute was brought on to design and run the first-ever statewide training program for residents of public housing. Recently, we piloted our brand new two-day training with thirteen Resident LHA Board Members. During Day 1, when asked why it’s important to have a resident on the Board, Cedric Flowers of Charlton immediately piped up, “Because it’s my home!” Others chimed in as well: “Because I see what’s really going on,” and, “Because this is my day-to-day life. For other Board Members, it’s more abstract.”

Two experienced Resident Board Members shared “lessons learned” with the full group. “I feel like it’s my job to educate both sides, the Board and the residents,” explained Jessica Quinoñez of Springfield. “I educate the rest of the Board about what it is like to actually live in housing. And I educate the residents about what it is actually like to run a housing authority.” Jessica encourages residents, for example, to save energy by taking their air conditioning units out of the windows in the winter, and about how to follow the “chain of command” when they have a maintenance request. She keeps firm boundaries—often a challenge for Resident Board Members—by meeting with residents in the community room rather than her own home.

Karen Hughey, a Board Member in Needham, told a story about encouraging Board Members to get more connected with residents. “I encouraged them to come to our Monday muffin mornings,” she said. “The Board Members tend to wear suits and seem intimidating, but when residents got to know them over muffins, they got to see them as just regular people. And the Board Members got a better sense of who is living here in housing.”

There are 240 LHAs in Massachusetts. Each is governed by a 5-member Board (except for Boston, which has a unique governance structure). Cities already have residents on their Boards, and many towns have already elected residents to the Board in town-wide elections. The remaining towns will add a tenant to their Board in elections in 2018 or beyond, pending regulations from DHCD.

Resident Board Members sometimes report being told they are not allowed to vote on certain measures, or that their duties are different from “regular” Board Members. Correcting this misinformation, and boosting confidence, is a major part of the training. Allowing folks to form peer-to-peer connections and learn from each other is another.

And many Board Members, both residents and non-residents, report feeling pressure to “rubber stamp” documents such as budgets and Capitol Improvement Plans that their Executive Directors present. By improving their understanding of these documents, Resident Board Members become empowered to ask questions and ensure that the documents align with their priorities.

By the end of the training, residents were excited to go home and get to work. “I have a lot of new questions for my LHA’s Director,” said one. “No more rubber stamping for me.”

The LHA Resident Board Member Training plans to officially launch in late May. The Public Housing Training Program will offer this training throughout the state in 2017 and beyond.