When the second plane slammed into the south tower of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, Stacy Spann had a bird's-eye view of the firestorm from his employer's office a mere block away.
Anxious that the skyscraper where his wife was working could be targeted next, he called Shannon and told her to get out of her high-rise and go to a friend's house, even as he watched workers jumping from the burning buildings. As the last train leaving Manhattan pulled away with him on it, he looked over his shoulder and watched the twin towers fall.
The director of the county's Department of Housing and Community Development has rarely talked about that day, he says. But it did serve to reaffirm a decision he'd already made once before -- he didn't belong in New York.
Spann, who is 38 and grew up in low-income housing in Columbia, had walked away from Wall Street just a few years earlier.
"I had never had wealth, and I thought I was there to learn, not to do what I was told and get paid obscene amounts of money," he said of his turn as an investment banking analyst.
When he became miserable enough to resign, he was reminded that he'd be taking a significant pay cut wherever he landed and asked how that would help his family. He replied that there was a more important question on the table: "How does it help them if I become a completely different person?"
"It felt wonderful (to leave), because it was the right thing to do," said Spann, who earned degrees from Morehouse College and Columbia University.
After holding another position in New York and one in Boston, he had returned to New York City as a social investment officer when Sept. 11 occurred. He soon realized he could apply his "love of the transaction" and financing skills to community challenges, so he focused on housing issues.
"So much revolves around where a family lives and how (a home) stabilizes a family," Spann said. "If you're not worried about your income, where you live and what you eat, you're free."
After deciding to return to Maryland, he served as assistant commissioner for development finance in Baltimore's housing department. Spann was appointed to his current positions in December 2006. He also serves as executive director of the county's housing commission. He and his wife live in Fulton with their children, Evan, 7, and Sydney, 4.
Spann said his goal for his departments is simple: "We intend to develop, manage and own world-class communities."
The list of adjectives describing these communities is equally straightforward, he said: superior-design, amenities-rich, energy-efficient, mixed-income, multi-generational and self-sustaining.
"And, oh, yeah -- some of the units happen to be affordable housing," he added with a broad smile.
Spann said he can't rule out that some of his experiences growing up weren't tumbling around in the back of his mind as he set about revamping and nearly quadrupling the county's affordable housing stock.
"The housing units were not well-maintained, and some were hideously ugly. The people who lived in them were treated badly. I know, because I was that kid," he recalled of his youth. "And moving around from community to community -- how does transience work for families?"
Mary Ann Scully, president and CEO of Howard Bank, said Spann has "the ability with his heart to understand the emotional factors and the ability with his head to understand that a complex set of problems requires complex solutions."
Having worked with him on various projects, Scully said she's aware that he faces land policy challenges as well as a lack of awareness that housing issues even exist in such a wealthy suburban county.
"Stacy is doing exactly what we need, and we're fortunate that he's dedicated himself to doing it here," she said.
According to Paul Casey, an attorney with Ballard Spahr and former advisory board chairman, the county's affordable-housing effort was "kind of in the doldrums" before Spann arrived.
"With his mixed-income communities, people can feel like they're living in their housing of choice, and living with dignity and respect," Casey said.
Spann said he knows he's doing what he should be doing. The National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials apparently agrees: The association handed his department two achievement awards this year. Affordable Housing Finance magazine selected Spann for a Young Leader award in 2010.
"Can we do things better? Yes. Do we always get it 100 percent right? Sadly, no," he said. "But people do stop me to tell me what we're doing well."
Among several projects currently in the works around the county, 10 units of single-family detached housing are under construction in Jessup and a second phase will contain 20 units. These craftsman-style cottages have 1,400 square feet of space and are sold to people who earn 60 percent of the county's median income of $101,000, he said.
"And they're fantastic! They're works of art," Spann said. "The way these families view themselves is what impacts them the most."
Editor's note: Stacy Spann will leave his post in Howard County to serve as executive director of Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission beginning in January 2012.