Baltimore housing commissioner defends record in office

Graziano: "If I thought everything in the Housing Authority would be fixed if I left, I'd leave."

Embattled Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano feels misunderstood.

As mayoral candidates and activists call for his resignation or firing, the longest-serving agency head in Baltimore thinks his accomplishments are being overlooked. He says he has consistently pushed for fixes for those living in deplorable conditions in the city's public housing, taken swift action to address allegations of sexual abuse by maintenance workers, and improved the troubled, underfunded agency he took over 15 years ago.

"If I thought everything in the Housing Authority would be fixed if I left, I'd leave," Graziano said in a wide-ranging interview with The Baltimore Sun. "I take the problems seriously."

Others have a starkly different view.

"The overall frustration with Graziano is he doesn't seem to care," said Matt Gonter, an activist on housing and tax issues who lives in Patterson Park. "He's ultimately responsible for this mess, and he's done nothing to clean it up."

The stinging criticism of Graziano — who has a long, rocky history in Baltimore — comes amid a cascade of problems. Residents are complaining about poor conditions in the city's public-housing complexes, and some in West Baltimore recently went days without heat or water. Meanwhile, a lawsuit alleges that some maintenance workers refused to make repairs at apartments unless tenants engaged in sex acts. Graziano also faces criticism over a recent audit at the agency, the elimination of the housing authority's inspector general and accusations that top housing officials retaliated against whistleblowers.

Calls for Graziano to be fired began with student protesters at City Hall, carried over into a hashtag — #firegraziano — on social media and, last week, became an issue in the mayor's race. A number of prominent candidates said they would replace him.

Graziano, who makes about $220,000 a year, acknowledges that his agency has made mistakes, including being too slow to make repairs at some housing complexes. But he says the problems in public housing are a matter of funding, not of caring. He says he has taken undisclosed disciplinary actions against the maintenance workers accused of wrongdoing.

"I've dedicated my life to serving the low-income residents of public housing. I wouldn't be doing it for two-thirds of my life if I didn't care," said Graziano, who serves as commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development, a city agency, and as head of the federally funded and independent Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

Graziano said federal funding for capital improvements in Baltimore's public housing has dropped from $42 million in 1993 to $15 million today. Because about half that money goes to paying down debt, the agency has less than $7 million a year to spend on building improvements, he added.

He said a lack of funding contributes to breakdowns in maintenance work in the city's 11,000 public housing units, including the problems at Lakeview Towers, where residents went without water or heat for days in October.

"We're doing a top-to-bottom review to see where the system broke down, because clearly it broke down," Graziano said.

He promised a better system for processing work orders and said he is restructuring the agency. As part of that reorganization — which Graziano said started months before the lawsuit was filed — he is creating a property manager position for each of the family complexes and is recruiting people for those positions.

"We understood that we needed a higher caliber of manager," Graziano said. "We're tying to balance the competencies of the managers and the site staff and their accountability, so we created this higher-level manager position."

On Friday, Graziano gained tepid support from an unlikely group of allies. Community leaders in Baltimore's public housing gathered to oppose his firing, arguing that they want to press him to make reforms in the final 13 months of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's term.

"We're going to hold him accountable," said Ella Broadway, president of the Resident Advisory Board of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. "This mess came under his watch. We're going to make sure he fixes it."

Graziano, 62, is a survivor in Baltimore's government, serving three mayors — at least two of whom considered firing him.

He has been the subject of several public controversies. Only weeks into the job in 2000, he was arrested at a Fells Point bar after a drunken tirade laced with anti-gay slurs. He apologized, and then-Mayor Martin O'Malley sent him to get alcohol treatment.

Later, he drew criticism for refusing to pay millions of dollars in settlements and court judgments in lead-paint cases, citing orders from the federal government. Graziano said Friday that he paid the bills as soon as he was allowed.

Four years ago, Rawlings-Blake's transition team declared that Graziano had a "vision deficit." The new mayor, citing various complaints, told him to "hit the reset button."

Now Rawlings-Blake has nothing but praise for him.

"Under very challenging budget circumstances, Paul Graziano has transformed the housing department into an innovative department that has been recognized internationally for its work," she said. "He has shown a sensitivity to the needs of neighborhoods and the needs of public housing residents."

She blasted the mayoral candidates calling for his ouster.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction in order to ride the wave of social media to get attention," she said. "I don't know if that's what the public considers leadership."

The mayor and Graziano say the agency's list of troubles should not overshadow his accomplishments.

He says he turned around a "seriously distressed" rent subsidy program when he arrived in Baltimore, increasing the program's ranking from a 5 to 145 — the highest possible under federal law. He installed a working computer system, and has embarked on a plan to privatize about 40 percent of the city's public housing units to raise $350 million for repairs to other units.

He also has been politically savvy. For example, he has contributed nearly $20,000 to political campaigns over the years, including donations to mayors O'Malley, Sheila Dixon and Rawlings-Blake.

C. Matthew Hill, staff attorney at the Public Justice Center, acknowledged that Graziano faces an uphill fight.

"While the social, economic and political forces impacting Baltimore City are in many ways beyond the commissioner's control, we are nevertheless very concerned about Baltimore Housing's response to those forces," he said. Programs to assist homeless and very low-income people are "woefully inadequate and shrinking," he added.

Baltimore is hardly unique in struggling with poor conditions in public housing, said Stephen Norman, board president of the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities.

"It's part of a larger infrastructure problem that we're seeing, not just in public housing but also in public roads and public bridges. There's been a massive disinvestment in public infrastructure," he said.

A federal study in 2010 found a $26 billion backlog in major capital repairs nationally in public housing. The federal government allots just $1.7 billion a year for such repairs.

"Paul walked into a whole set of bad conditions in Baltimore," Norman said. "I do truly think that it's easy to point to the situation and say it's a mess and that the guy running the agency is responsible, but there are larger forces shaping this."

But other former city housing officials and people that deal with the department say Graziano has been in the job too long, that fresh ideas and new leadership might be required to rebuild the department's strained relations with residents, community leaders and businesses — the nexus of support the agency needs to succeed at neighborhood redevelopment.

Carol Ott, director of the advocacy group Housing Policy Watch, is among those calling for Graziano's firing.

"If I had done half the things Paul Graziano has done, I would have been fired a long time ago," she said. "There's been no accountability. It's so embarrassing."

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, president of the University of Baltimore, said resident complaints can take time to reach the executive offices of a large bureaucracy, depending on whether front-line supervisors "report it up the line."

When residents complained of hazardous conditions in Murphy Homes decades ago, Schmoke said, it took a couple of weeks for the issues to reach his office. When the complaints did hit his desk, "I visited the homes and we took action."

It does not seem plausible, he said, that Graziano's executive staff was unaware of such serious complaints about deplorable conditions and sex-for-repairs accusations.

"It's hard for me to believe that it could go on for weeks and months without someone at the top knowing something about it," Schmoke said.

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