Pugh names separate heads for Baltimore housing agencies

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh named two leaders for the city's housing agencies Thursday, a key step toward fulfilling a pledge to separate the public housing authority and the housing and community development department.

Pugh named Janet Abrahams as executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City. She is a veteran public housing official, most recently in New York's giant public housing agency.

Michael Braverman, the acting housing commissioner, will run the Department of Housing and Community Development. He has held various city jobs over a 30-year career.

The two agencies long had been overseen by a single commissioner who ran an umbrella organization known as Baltimore Housing. Pugh said she thinks separating the two will be more efficient and could attract more federal money.

"Almost any major city in this nation, those agencies are separate," Pugh said. "I know that in some cases when you overlap agencies you can get some good things, but our issues in Baltimore are really important to focus on."

In addition, Braverman will be charged with fostering a new a development policy that boosts city neighborhoods. In recent decades, city efforts have focused on providing aid for large developments in waterfront areas, such as Harbor East and Harbor Point.

"What we're trying to make sure happens as we move forward is that development is led by us," Pugh said. "We need public-private partnerships, but we also need to make sure the citizens are heard."

Paul T. Graziano, the previous housing commissioner, resigned soon after Pugh took office in December amid complaints about poor conditions in public housing and allegations that maintenance workers demanded sex in exchange for carrying out repairs. The city settled a lawsuit over those claims for $8 million. Graziano had been in the job since 2000. Pugh had pledged during the campaign to replace him.

The Housing Authority operates about 10,000 public housing units across the city and administers voucher programs helping 12,000 more residents afford a place to live. It is in the process of privatizing many of its public housing units in an attempt to raise money to pay for repairs and upgrades.

The smaller Department of Housing and Community Development focuses on attracting investors, developers and home buyers to the city as well as enforcing the city's building codes.

Jaime Lee, who runs a community development clinic at the University of Baltimore School of Law, said cities have had success separating public housing and development functions and also combining them. When the responsibilities are under a single agency, she said, a competent leader can implement a more sweeping vision. But breaking them apart can create more accountable, easier to manage organizations.

"One of the bigger issues is the real deep public distrust of this institution," Lee said. "There's real longstanding deep mistrust by the public and I think leadership is widely viewed as unresponsive and unaccountable to the real human needs."

Matt Hill, a housing rights advocate at the Public Justice Center, said the two leaders will need to work together closely to be successful as their different resources can often complement one another. For example, the Department of Housing and Community Development could subsidize the construction of new housing while the Housing Authority could provide vouchers for the tenants who would live in it.

The bigger shift could be the greater focus on communities. Lee is involved in an effort to have the city issue $40 million in bonds to pay for small-scale development projects, an idea Pugh has endorsed.

"In the past there was a very strong perception that those big flashy high-end developments are simply the way to build a city," Lee said, but now there's a chance to change the approach.

Braverman said he was excited to carry out the mayor's vision.

"This is a great opportunity," he said. "We have some extraordinary opportunities."

Braverman will be paid $192,000 annually. Abrahams, who has worked in several of the nation's largest public housing agencies, will make $200,000.

Pugh also announced Michelle Pourciau as the city's transportation director. Pourciau ran the Washington transportation department and later implemented that city's traffic camera system.

Pugh is planning to bring speed and red light cameras back to Baltimore after a previous, error riddled system was taken offline. The test of new speed camera system begins Monday. For 30 days, speeding drivers will be issued warnings, not tickets.

Pourciau once worked for American Traffic Solutions, which was awarded a $5.4 million contract in May to carry out part of that work. Anthony McCarthy, a spokesman for Pugh, said Pourciau worked for the company almost a decade ago.

"We definitely don't see it as a conflict," he said.

Pourciau's salary will be $173,000.

The mayor also said that Kim Morton, her acting chief of staff, will take on the job permanently. Pugh still is hunting for someone to lead her office of criminal justice, which has languished in recent months. Pugh said Wednesday she expects the post to be filled within 30 days.

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