Housing Authority board raises director’s salary, enthusiastically endorses Johnston tenure

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Cambridge Housing Authority chief executive Michael Johnston with operations secretary Patrick Lane in a 2019 agency video.

The head of the Cambridge Housing Authority got a bigger pay rise than he asked for when the authority’s board approved a new five-year contract for him on Wednesday. Executive Director Michael Johnston will earn $260,000 this year, which is $10,000 more than his claim.

Johnston’s new salary is a 33% increase; he earned $196,000 last year. Until now, the CHA was constrained by a salary cap for heads of state-subsidized public housing agencies. Johnston said it was the maximum set last year by the Department of Housing and Community Development.

CHA serves approximately 5,500 low-income individuals and families through its public housing and Section 8 rental assistance programs.

In December, some council members had urged the authority to ask the national housing agency for cap relief. The CHA demanded and the state agreed that it could no longer regulate Johnston’s salary or contract because the Cambridge agency no longer has state-subsidized housing. Instead, most of its apartments are supported by the federal Section 8 program.

Johnston has worked at the authority for 30 years and was named executive director in 2017 with a salary of $175,000. Johnston led the agency through two years of the Covid-19 pandemic and, along with staff, continued an extensive building program aimed at refurbishing its entire low-income housing portfolio. The Cambridge agency has branched out to administer Section 8 housing programs in other communities; CHA also operates the Belmont Housing Authority.

At the March 9 board meeting, Johnston presented a memorandum asking for a salary of $250,000 this year with increases of $8,000 in each of the next four years, bringing it to $282,000 in 2027. He also claimed the chance to earn a $10,000 bonus every year. Johnston included a study by a compensation consultant finding that the salary for positions equivalent to his in the public sector ranged from $163,000 to $261,200 and, in the private sector, from $261,000 to $417,000.

Although the study determined that $261,200 was the highest salary for people in his position in the public sector, Johnston demanded $250,000. Two CHA commissioners didn’t care. “I think you’re phenomenal,” board member Susan Connelly said. “I appreciate your humble request, but I think we should limit you to the public sector [maximum].”

Connelly, who has worked most of her career in affordable housing, is chief operating officer of Housing Opportunities Unlimited, a non-profit organization that provides relocation and other services to owners of affordable housing. .

Elaine DeRosa, retired director of Cambridge Economic Opportunity’s anti-poverty committee, agreed. She also suggested removing Johnston’s bonus proposal and instead adding $10,000 to Johnston’s request for each year of his contract.

Board chairman Gerald Clark, emeritus professor of law at Suffolk University and CHA commissioner since 1974, initially suggested voting on Johnston’s application without change. Instead, DeRosa and Connelly proposed an amendment to pay Johnston $10,000 more than he requested for each year of his contract and to eliminate the bonuses. The votes to approve the amendment and the amended order were unanimous.

Johnston told board members that the state salary cap for his position had lowered the salaries of other managers at the agency. A pay study last spring found salaries for non-union staff at the Cambridge agency were about 21% lower than salaries at similarly sized housing authorities across the country, according to its memo. After the cap was lifted, the CHA increased the salaries of executive employees so that salaries were in line with those of similar agencies, he said.

Johnston said CHA spent $134 million on construction in 2021, the highest amount in its history. Its operating revenue last year was $185 million, down from $103 million in 2017, he said.FacebookTwitter
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