Councilmen call for hearings into 'unconscionable' backlog of public housing repairs

Mosby: Conditions in some city public housing 'would be deemed unacceptable by health standards for animals.'

City Council members expressed outrage Monday and called for hearings after a Baltimore Sun investigation revealed a backlog of more than 4,000 requests for public housing repairs that have long gone unanswered.

Councilman Nick J. Mosby, a mayoral candidate, called for the council to investigate the problem, saying conditions in Baltimore public housing are "unconscionable."

"The number of complexes and units with open work orders is astonishing," Mosby said Monday. "These conditions would be deemed unacceptable by health standards for animals. We have got to do a better job."

Housing Authority of Baltimore City documents obtained last month by The Sun through a public information request show a backlog of more than 4,000 work orders at least 30 days old. Residents have sometimes waited more than a year for repairs essential to health and sanitation.

The Sun's investigation revealed that of the outstanding work orders, more than 1,000 involved plumbing problems such as leaky toilets, falling-down sinks and clogged bathtubs. Families in more than 200 homes had been waiting a month or more for exterminators.

"It's unacceptable," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "If we need to get more workers to get the work done, then we need more workers. If I were the people in public housing, and my stuff hadn't been fixed, I wouldn't be paying rent until it's done."

Housing chief Paul T. Graziano said Monday the fundamental challenge in managing the 49 developments run by the housing authority is a more than $800 million shortfall in capital funding from the federal government. He pointed to his plan to sell 40 percent of the 11,000 units to generate cash for repairs. A handful of those sales will close this month, followed by more in December.

"With respect to day-to-day maintenance, progress is being made as outstanding work orders have been reduced by 840 in the past month," Graziano said in a statement. "The most severe conditions at each site are being prioritized."

Graziano said he is working to fully implement a revamped work order system by early next year. He also is recruiting for 30 critical positions, including heating plant mechanics, supervisors, quality control staff and new property managers.

Housing officials pledged to make repairs to Stacey Poole's townhome in the Westport development after reading about the problems described Sunday in The Sun, but as of Monday evening the fixes hadn't been made. Poole had outstanding work orders to fix the hardware on one of her doors, repair a broken window that had been nailed shut and patch a part of her ceiling that had been damaged by a leaky toilet.

Mosby said he wants to invite Graziano — whom he has called on to resign — to testify before a council committee to spell out the next steps the housing authority is taking to improve living conditions for the 19,000 men, women and children who call the complexes home. He said he expects to file a resolution as early as Dec. 7 to set a hearing date.

He said The Sun's reporting shows the need for the housing authority to collect data on undone repairs and analyze it frequently. Mosby added that Graziano has talked repeatedly about the reduction in federal funds, but he should have been doing more to develop "innovative" ways to improve conditions.

The local housing authority received $42 million for capital improvements in 1993. This year, Graziano has said the authority received $15 million, and half of that must go to pay off debt.

Graziano said Monday that the plan to privatize units won't fully cover outstanding capital needs. About a half a billion dollars in capital improvements will be needed at the sites that aren't being sold, he said.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, also a mayoral candidate, grew up in public housing in East Baltimore's Latrobe Homes. In recent years, Stokes has advocated for public housing residents in his district to be moved after seeing mold in their apartments. He said Monday he believes Graziano has been hiding the full extent of the backlog from the public.

"It's tremendously wrong that upper management has never come to City Council and said, 'We have a problem. We can't keep up with the maintenance,'" Stokes said. "We've never been told how serious the problem is."

Last month, the evacuation of elderly and disabled residents at a Reservoir Hill high-rise brought attention to the squalid conditions at some public housing developments. Tenants at Lakeview Towers had gone four days without water and only sporadic heat.

Twenty tenants at three other developments have filed a lawsuit alleging that maintenance workers demanded sexual favors as a condition for making repairs.

In an interview this month, Graziano could not immediately explain the long repair backlog laid out in his agency's documents. Under housing authority policy, crews have 24 hours to fix problems deemed to be emergencies and 72 to resolve those labeled urgent. Routine repairs can take longer.

Many of the work orders disclosed in the documents provided to The Sun described serious problems, although authority workers had not labeled them as urgent or an emergency.

Graziano has said some workers could face disciplinary actions.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said she stands behind her housing chief.

"The Mayor continues to support the strong work of Commissioner Graziano, and she recognizes the tremendous challenges that he faces on maintenance issues given the huge budget cuts that the federal government has imposed on the Housing Authority of Baltimore City," Libit said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the City Council also plans to investigate the sex-for-repairs allegations. A hearing is scheduled for 5 p.m. Monday, and it will be broadcast on the city's cable channel.

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