From Africa to Baltimore: The long path to education for a Hopkins star

Baltimore public housing residents wait months for repairs

The broken lock on Stacey Poole's door at the Westport public housing complex has forced her to live in fear for months. If someone yanks hard enough, the door can open — even though Housing Authority maintenance workers came several times to repair it.

From outside, Poole's townhouse looks well maintained, but the inside is another story. Workers nailed a malfunctioning window shut and declared it fixed. Loose carpeting on the stairs causes her kids to trip. And the kitchen ceiling is damaged from the toilet leak that dripped through, ruining food in the cabinets. It took months for someone to come fix the leak. Months more have passed, and nothing has been done about patching the ceiling.

Shoddy, incomplete and long-overdue repairs are common among the 11,000 homes maintained by the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, an investigation by The Baltimore Sun has found.

The Housing Authority has a backlog of more than 4,000 work orders in which residents have waited more than 30 days — sometimes more than a year — for repairs, according to records obtained last month by The Sun through a public information request.

While some of the orders were for cosmetic work such as painting, others were for repairs essential to safety and sanitation. More than1,000 were requests to fix plumbing problems such as broken shower heads, falling-down sinks, clogged tubs and leaking toilets.

Another 1,700 sought carpentry work or repairs to broken windows, doors, doorknobs and locks. And 387 were for broken appliances, including refrigerators and stoves.

More than 200 households had been waiting a month or more for exterminators.

The backlog has created squalid conditions more widespread than revealed by recent news events, such as last month's evacuation of elderly and disabled tenants in Reservoir Hill who had gone four days without water and with only sporadic heat. Twenty tenants at three other developments have filed suit alleging that Housing Authority maintenance workers demanded sexual favors as a condition for making repairs.

In an interview, city housing chief Paul T. Graziano could not 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, though routine repairs can take longer. None of the work orders waiting more than 30 days was labeled urgent or an emergency by the authority, though many described serious problems.

Any disrepair should have been spotted and addressed in required annual inspections of the authority's 49 developments, Graziano said. He suggested that the documents might have overstated the number of overdue repairs, saying that some requests could have been fulfilled but not noted. Last week, the Housing Authority said a review showed that 700 of the more than 4,900 repair requests had actually been fulfilled.

"I'm more concerned with the timeliness of the response and the adequacy of the repairs than the absolute number," Graziano said.

He acknowledged that conditions he observed in recent tours of several developments were appalling. "Some of the things I saw really strain your imagination to believe they wouldn't have been picked up," he said. "That tells me those units clearly were not inspected, or someone went in and didn't bother to write down the conditions."

Graziano said he has been working to overhaul the work order system, and that some workers could be disciplined. He said he plans to install new management at many developments.

"We're doing a top-to-bottom review to see where the system broke down," Graziano said. "Clearly, there are some situations where it broke down, and we'll be making adjustments."

That can't happen soon enough for residents such as Poole, a 26-year-old mother of three. She moved to Westport from her mother's home about two years ago in hopes of using public housing as a steppingstone to independence.

"I'm trying to build and put my life together," she said. "I moved in here thinking things would be better ... and then nothing gets fixed."

During visits by Sun reporters to seven complexes around the city, tenants opened their homes to show problems that included moldy bathroom walls, falling ceilings and exposed wiring.

The temperature inside some units gets so hot that tenants run air conditioners year-round. Others are so cold that residents stuff cardboard into leaky window frames and crank up their ovens to stay warm.

Shebra Johnson said she fell outside McCulloh Homes in West Baltimore a few weeks ago and broke her tooth after tripping in the darkened courtyard. The lights have been out for months, she said.

Rain and bugs get inside her house from a screen door that doesn't fit properly. Her stove sometimes emits an odor of gas.

"No matter how many work orders I put in, they don't get done," said Johnson, 41.

At Brooklyn Homes in South Baltimore, the maintenance problems have spilled onto the yard outside. On a recent morning, mattresses and box springs littered the lawn outside eight units.

"They're all infested with bedbugs," a man sitting on his front steps said about the mattresses. "If you want to get rid of bedbugs right, you need to pay for an exterminator on your own." He declined to give his name, saying he feared retaliation by management.

The Housing Authority's work-order tally showed Brooklyn Homes has a dismal record: The sprawling 482-unit complex had 923 open work orders more than 30 days old, the largest number among the city's public housing developments.

Resident Dana Edwards said sewage has backed up repeatedly into her toilet and bathtub — and workers have repeatedly come to clean up the problem. But they never get it fixed, she said. At last count, she said, she had made 37 repair requests about it.

When the sewage overflows in Edwards' home, adjoining units suffer the same problem, neighbors said. "The smell is overpowering," said Edwards, 47. "Sometimes it takes them 10 days or two weeks to come by."

Shervawn Boone, 33, who grew up in Brooklyn Homes and still lives there, said the Housing Authority has been a negligent landlord for years. In October 2007, after battling an infestation of mice, Boone took the agency to Rent Court, records show. A judge ordered that her rent be held in escrow. Though the unit was eventually exterminated, an outside hole was never sealed to block the rodents' entry.

After repeated infestations, the Housing Authority finally made the necessary repairs in November 2008, according to court records. But the judge refunded to Boone nearly 40 percent of her rent.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds public housing, does not have standards for how many maintenance workers should be on staff to care for complexes. On paper, Baltimore's Housing Authority appears to have a large work force to deal with its rental properties. An agency spreadsheet shows 361 maintenance positions to tend to the 11,000 units.

The agency says, however, that about 50 of those positions are vacant. The union contends that the vacancy figure is higher. And many of the authority's maintenance workers are not skilled in trades. Half the Housing Authority maintenance force is made up of entry-level workers who police the grounds, clean up and assist skilled workers, according to the agency.

A top union official in Baltimore contends there are far too many vacant positions, making it hard for the staff to keep up. "The women and men who work in the Housing Authority's buildings do so with one thing on their mind — creating safe and healthy living spaces for Baltimore's families," said Glenard S. Middleton of AFSCME Council 67.

Upkeep for some of Baltimore's developments is especially difficult because of their age. About 10 complexes date to the 1940s, including O'Donnell Heights. The Southeast Baltimore development was built during World War II as temporary barracks for factory workers and was last renovated significantly in 1983. (About 600 of the complex's 900 units were demolished in recent years to make way for redevelopment that includes a mix of subsidized housing, market-rate apartments and owner-occupied homes.)

Graziano often points out that the federal government has sharply cut spending to renovate or replace the public housing stock. In 1993, it sent Baltimore $42 million for capital improvements. Today, the Housing Authority gets $15 million, and half must go to pay off debt, he said.

His solution to cope with the disinvestment is the pending sale of nearly 40 percent of the city's public housing units to private developers, who are charged with renovating the complexes while keeping them as low-income housing. The sales will generate millions of dollars for the Housing Authority to invest in its public housing. A few of the deals close this month.

"It is always going to be a chase here to keep up with things, because the capital needs are just so far above and beyond what we have available," Graziano said.

But he pledged that the new work-order system will make a difference. A quality-assurance team will randomly inspect units, hand-held devices will enable staff to close out orders immediately upon completion, and residents will be able to enter work requests into a computer that automatically generates an order.

"To the extent that there are serious repairs that need to be made, I am very, very concerned," Graziano said.

Tyrisha White just wants out of the Westport unit where she's lived for four years.

The 27-year-old single mother of two was overcome by tears when she described her struggles. She can't rid her tidy home of bedbugs, and the money she makes as a hotel maid is not enough for her to take the maintenance staff's advice and throw out her living room furniture and replace it with leather pieces.

Her ceiling has dripped water for a month. A window has been broken since kids threw a brick into her kitchen three years ago. There are mice in her children's room, and she can't open their windows to let in fresh air because there are no screens.

People should not have to put up with such conditions, she said, "just because you pay low rent."

Baltimore Sun newsroom data developer Patrick Maynard and reporters Ian Duncan and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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