Wednesday, April 17, 2024


The Cambridge Housing Authority’s executive director, Gregory Russ.

The Cambridge Housing Authority’s executive director, Gregory Russ.

After leading a long battle to preserve – and transform – public housing in Cambridge with private financing, Cambridge Housing Authority Executive Director Gregory Russ is getting a sizable raise.

Russ’ base salary will increase from $160,000 last year to $189,000 this year, and will rise to $198,000 in 2017, according to a three-year contract approved by Cambridge Housing Authority commissioners Jan. 14. He can also get yearly bonuses of $7,500 based on performance. The contract can be extended for another two years.

In a novel arrangement, Russ can work up to 80 hours a year on private consulting jobs, with the authority setting the rate. He will earn his regular salary and the authority will collect what his consulting clients pay. The proceeds are earmarked for the authority’s central administration office. Russ estimated his work could bring in as much as $10,000 to offset administrative costs.

Redevelopment plan

The authority has begun a $360 million redevelopment that will upgrade about 2,100 apartments in the next three to five years. Together with more than 300 units that have already been renovated, the authority hopes to preserve all its housing for the next 40 years; officials said they feared that without repairs, the housing might deteriorate to the point where it couldn’t be used.

To pay for the huge construction project in an era of dwindling federal support, the agency tapped private investors and banks under a federal program designed to convert public housing to private ownership and use rent subsidies instead of public housing payments to support operations.

The authority has promised to preserve tenant protections and low rents by continuing to manage the housing while investors in low-income housing tax credits temporarily own it. Nonprofit agencies under CHA control will do the management and are expected to regain full ownership when the tax credits expire. CHA has kept ownership of the land under the buildings in another protection strategy.

Waiting list

The project, which won national attention from public housing officials, has not been without controversy. The authority closed its public housing waiting list Jan. 1, leaving about 9,000 applicants frozen in place, without a chance to get an apartment, for an estimated two to three years. Officials said they needed vacant units for relocating current tenants displaced by construction.

And after assuring tenants no one’s rent would go up as a result of the changes, authority officials decided to raise rents for at least 87 families that earn the highest incomes and now pay maximum rents. Officials said the families now pay much less as a percentage of their incomes than do poor tenants who must pay 30 percent of their earnings. Because of skyrocketing rent for private housing, many if not all of these families can’t afford to leave.

People on the waiting list who make more than 60 percent of the area median income will no longer be eligible for most apartments because of tax credit requirements; the previous income cap was 80 percent of median income. And because CHA is converting its last state-financed public housing development to federal oversight, immigrant families where no one has legal residency documents can’t get housing.

History in housing

Russ was appointed executive director in 2004 after working for more than 30 years in public housing, including stints at the Philadelphia and the Chicago Housing Authorities, and at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal agency that oversees and funds public housing. In 2007, his most recent contract before the one approved Jan. 14, his salary was set at $142,000 for three years, with the possibility of annual revisions. The agreement was amended in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013, giving Russ a base salary of $160,000 before the latest agreement. Russ had been working without a contract since September.

State officials have been sensitive to public housing authority salary issues since it was disclosed that former Chelsea Housing Authority executive director Michael McLaughlin concealed his pay from regulators for three years by falsely reporting it was much lower; in 2011 he made more than $324,000 and reported a salary of $160,000.

In 2013, McLaughlin was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to four counts of falsifying a record.

HUD, the federal agency, has a salary cap of $155,500 for top housing authority officials, but allows higher pay as long as the excess isn’t paid from federal funds. The state Department of Housing and Community Development caps salaries at $160,000, but also allows more, if the housing authority submits a comparative pay analysis from a state-approved consultant and the state agency signs off on the higher salary.

The state has approved Russ’ contract and CHA will fund the amount above $155,500 from non-federal funds, a board memo said.