Housing chief Paul T. Graziano spent about two hours touring the Gilmor Homes Wednesday, saying he came to see the public housing tenants' living conditions first hand and develop a "a very explicit plan of action."
Public housing maintenance crews were painting Sara Garrett's apartment Wednesday and installing new kitchen cabinets, a stove and countertops.
She said she's been asking the Housing Authority for years to fix a long list of dangers to her and her children — electrical sockets hanging out of the walls, rodents, the broken stove.
But Garrett said nothing was done until now — after she joined a lawsuit with other women who say maintenance workers at several public housing complexes refused to make repairs unless they gave in to sexual demands.
She stood in her kitchen at Gilmor Homes with Paul T. Graziano to recount her troubles as the embattled housing chief spent about two hours touring the West Baltimore complex. He said he came to see the living conditions firsthand and develop "a very explicit plan of action" to resolve tenants' problems.
"I've been asking them to fix this for three years," Garrett, 31, told Graziano, pulling up photos on her cellphone of mold in her bathroom and trash rodents had stashed behind the old kitchen cabinets.
"They haven't fixed this since I've been there, because I won't do their demands. I won't do that," Garrett said. "Everything in the house was messed up."
Graziano — who announced Wednesday that federal authorities are investigating the sexual harassment and abuse allegations — described some of the conditions he saw as "very disturbing." About 10 other Housing Authority officials joined him on the tour.
"We're reviewing operations from top to bottom to see what we can do to address any and all problems," said Graziano, who has held dual roles as the city's housing commissioner and head of the federally funded Housing Authority of Baltimore City for 15 years.
He said he found some issues that can be addressed immediately, such as installing special electrical outlets near washer hookups to reduce the risk of shock and mounting specially ordered radiators into units with heating problems.
The housing authority must work with city officials to create comprehensive plans for dealing with certain problems, such as roach, mice and rat infestations, Graziano said. That could include large-scale extermination and more frequent garbage pickup, he said.
Another fix, he said, is to put controls in place to follow up with residents on their repair requests and to monitor the quality and timing of the work completed.
"We need to shake up a few things," Graziano said.
Lack of money from federal authorities is to blame for the complexes' larger capital needs, Graziano said. He says he would need $800 million to renovate or repair all of the city's 11,000 public housing units. Baltimore, the country's 26th-largest city, has the fifth-most public housing.
"All we get are cuts out of Washington," he said. "I am not saying there aren't things we can't do. There are things we need to address, day-to-day maintenance. We do. But it is going to be a real challenge to replace major systems."
To generate some money for repairs, the housing authority is selling about 40 percent of its public housing units to private developers, who are charged with renovating them. Money from the sales will be used to repair the city's remaining public housing.
Gregory Countess, a housing advocate for Maryland Legal Aid, agrees that the federal government has made an "outrageous" disinvestment in public housing over the last 30 years. But he questioned why it took a lawsuit for the local housing authority to respond to problems in the homes of residents like Garrett.
"The question is why those concerns weren't addressed before now," Countess said. "The housing authority has a protocol in place" that spells out the length of time officials have to make certain repairs.
Wednesday's was the first in a series of visits Graziano agreed to earlier this week. He also will sit down with a group of tenants and activists Dec. 4 to assess what progress has been made.
John P. Comer, lead organizer with Maryland Communities United, who is working with the residents, said the fact that more work is being done on the units since the lawsuit was filed a month ago is both a good and bad sign.
Comer said the response from the housing authority shows residents the power of their voices. On the other hand, he said, "it's a shame that it had to come to this."
"We want to send a message that we're not playing any games," Comer said. "This is an issue of humanity. We're not playing with people's lives."
Stephanie Harris, a 58-year-old Gilmor Homes resident, spent hours in the rain to accompany Graziano and the group on the tour. She, too, invited him into her home to see conditions. He directed his aides to take notes as Harris pointed out problems.
She said she's been promised a three-bedroom apartment to accommodate her, her daughter and her grandchildren, but the family has been crammed into a smaller unit with a broken bathtub — needing pliers to turn the water on and off — and windows with big gaps that make it hard to heat and cool.
Harris is among the women who have signed on to the suit. She says her requests for repairs were ignored after she refused last year to give into a maintenance worker's demands for sex.