A survivor, Graziano draws mixed reviews after nearly 11 years as housing chief

Paul T. Graziano looked for all the world like a short-timer. Just weeks into his new job as Baltimore's housing commissioner, he was arrested at a Fells Point bar after a drunken tirade laced with anti-gay slurs.

That was more than 10 years ago. He's still in the job.

Now on his third mayor, he has outlasted three police commissioners and numerous agency heads to become the city's longest-serving housing chief. It's a powerful perch. He oversees not only public housing, but everything from the rebirth of onetime slums such as the Uplands apartments in West Baltimore to code enforcement complaints in wealthy areas like Roland Park.

While the Fells Point episode has faded from public consciousness, Graziano has been unable to shake the rap that he lacks the big ideas Baltimore needs to stem population loss, tackle widespread decay and strengthen neighborhoods. "Vision deficit" was the biting phrase used in a transition report prepared for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she took office last year.

Graziano's agency has figured into the mayoral campaign for its role in developing Rawlings-Blake's plan to eliminate blight, Vacants to Value — a program that the mayor's challengers say will not make a dent in the city's mountain of 30,000 abandoned properties.

Meanwhile, his agency faces growing political pressure to pay nearly $12 million in court judgments awarded to public housing residents in lead-paint poisoning cases. After insisting repeatedly that the housing authority could not afford to pay, he said recently, "It's something that's got to be resolved."

Graziano, 58, is a bureaucratic survivor whose staying power has elicited a mix of curiosity, dismay and admiration in Baltimore's political and community development circles.

One obvious explanation is that three mayors have wanted him there. But that glosses over a more complicated reality. In the years since the Fells Point incident, he has dodged two political bullets — both previously unreported — when first Martin O'Malley and later Sheila Dixon weighed replacing him, according to interviews.

In what may serve as a reminder of the job's political realities, Graziano said in an interview that he overcame his misgivings and promoted then-Mayor Dixon's boyfriend in 2007 to a key land disposition post because she asked him to.

Dixon vehemently denies this.

Another reason for his longevity, even according to his critics, is that he seemingly gets the job done. Those who fault his performance nonetheless often praise his intellect, diligence and knowledge of arcane federal regulations.

Graziano has won plaudits for employing capable deputies, and many say he has brought needed stability to the troubled public housing agency, which serves 25,000 low-income families.

"There's no one big thing to point to and go, 'Oh, this is an outrage,'" said Tracy Gosson, former director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. "But at the same time, there is not much we can point to and go, 'Home run.'"

To be sure, Graziano has supporters, from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to several community development leaders who say he helped them with various projects. While Rawlings-Blake has not pledged to retain him if she wins a four-year term, she praised his performance.

"I'm confident in the work he's doing," the mayor said, adding that she saw no reason to think that would not continue. In a shot at the commissioner's detractors, she said, "I appreciate criticism that at least acknowledges the herculean task he has coming in the door and the progress he's made."

Graziano, a broad-shouldered man with a bushy gray mustache, rejects the notion that he lacks vision. But he says he needs to do a better job of communicating his ideas and achievements and notes that each mayor gets to set the priorities for his agency.

That executive prerogative is evident in shifting efforts to address the vacancy problem. O'Malley launched Project 5000 to buy and sell off 5,000 vacant structures. Dixon changed tack, pushing for a land bank outside city government as a way of improving efficiency. Rawlings-Blake shelved the land bank idea, opting instead to streamline existing city processes under Vacants to Value, which she outlined July 28 to officials at the White House.

While critics dismiss Vacants to Value as a Project 5000 retread, Graziano says the new program is far more focused on offloading properties the city owns. He describes the three mayoral initiatives as part of a continuum.

"I don't see it as, I'm over here and then I'm over here and then I'm over here," he said. "I see it as an evolution of thought."

Graziano — who earns $202,900 a year, nearly one-third more than the mayor's salary of $155,500 — has served longer than any previous housing commissioner going back to the late 1960s, when the position was created. He still thinks he can make a difference, even after the brutal recession, the sluggish recovery and long-term decline in federal housing aid. He says he has no desire to leave the job soon.

"It's been my determination to stick to things and just finish them," he said. "There have been a couple opportunities I've had actually to go elsewhere, very attractive offers. And I've just said I want to finish it. It's a hard job. You have to say no to a lot of people a lot of times."

'A bad night'

A divorced father of adult twins, he traces his work ethic to his father, who was fond of saying, 'Losers do what they want to do, winners what they have to."

Graziano grew up in Vermont, far from the inner cities on which he has focused for most of his professional life. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in planning.

For 16 years he worked in New England, eventually moving to Manchester, the largest city in New Hampshire, to lead its housing and redevelopment authority. That job led to his appointment in 1993 as the No. 2 official at the vast New York City Housing Authority, with its 180,000 public housing units. He was soon promoted to the top spot.

Seven years later, he headed to Baltimore, months after being replaced as general manager of New York's authority in a shake-up. When then-Mayor O'Malley named him housing commissioner in October 2000, Graziano says, he was still dealing with residual anger.

The pent-up emotion erupted one night that December. After drinking "way, way too much," as he put it, Graziano ended up at Bertha's in Fells Point. He told bar patrons this "whole place is full of fags" and made sexually graphic comments to two men he apparently thought were gay. After a night in jail, a crestfallen Graziano appeared with O'Malley at a news conference the next afternoon. He apologized profusely. He said he had "blacked out" and remembered nothing.

A decade later, Graziano slumps when the episode comes up, his eyes turning misty.

"I had a bad night, which reflected extremely poorly on me, and I have no excuses," he said. "I will say it in no way reflected on who I was as a person or of my core values in life."

Graziano had two choices. He could leave town. Or he could do his job — assuming the mayor still wanted him.

O'Malley had reason to keep him. He'd just replaced his first housing commissioner, Patricia Payne, after only eight months, and he saw the public housing authority — the nation's fifth-biggest, with a $300 million budget — in major distress.

Graziano went to a monthlong alcohol rehab program. He does not consider himself an alcoholic.

Out of the program, he got to work as the head of the two separate agencies now known collectively as Baltimore Housing.

One of his jobs is as executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, technically an independent entity that controls the city's network of public housing units and rental vouchers. He wears a second hat as the mayor's housing commissioner, in charge of the Department of Housing and Community Development. It has a wide range of functions, the biggest being code enforcement.

On the public housing side, Graziano inherited a mess. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had declared the city's Section 8 voucher program "barely functional;" an outside auditor found 26 problems and three serious "material weaknesses" in the authority.

"One of those material weaknesses was we didn't have a computer system," Graziano said. "We may be the only institution in the world where we actually had the Y2K crash before I got here."

That forced the authority to process thousands of rent checks every month by hand.

Annual audits since 2004 have found few problems and no material weaknesses.

Still, the authority is operating under two consent decrees resulting from federal lawsuits — one to improve access for disabled residents, the other, dating to 1996, aimed at reducing concentrations of poverty. Advocates for the poor, meanwhile, argue that the authority does not adequately serve housing needs of the city's low-income residents.

O'Malley applauded Graziano's efforts.

"Paul brought to that job a sort of professional, methodical persistence to turning around the housing authority, to laying the groundwork for Baltimore's redevelopment," the governor said. "He's not a show horse, but a workhorse."

He's also been something of a cash cow for his bosses.

Since 2003, Graziano has contributed $13,500 to O'Malley, Dixon and Rawlings-Blake. His donations far exceed those of other city government stalwarts, including longtime economic development chief M.J. "Jay" Brodie and Public Works Director Alfred H. Foxx.

City Hall intrigue

Public housing was only one of the challenges awaiting Graziano in Baltimore. With a decades-long population exodus leaving the city pocked with vacant houses, O'Malley announced Project 5000 in early 2002.

Ultimately, the program proved better at acquiring houses than disposing of them. But Douglass Austin, hired as Graziano's deputy after the launch, says the disposition went well, for a time.

Austin says he pushed hard for "guerrilla planning" to speed the bureaucratic pace. But he says Graziano too often applied the brakes, posing questions that were reasonable but slowed momentum.

"We'd spin these plans through the washing machine over and over, and nothing ever moved past development group meetings," Austin said.

Frustrated, Austin complained to the mayor's office in 2005. As much as he believed in O'Malley, he said, his message to City Hall was, "I can't help you guys if every time I come up with a plan, it gets stopped in Paul's office."

What happened next is murky. According to Dixon, who was then president of the City Council, O'Malley was poised to replace Graziano with Austin, but reconsidered when she questioned Austin's readiness.

Graziano says he appealed directly to the mayor to save his job: "I gave him my arguments and he considered them, and he changed his mind."

O'Malley says he does not recall these discussions.

Austin, who runs an education consulting firm, thinks O'Malley wanted to avoid further tumult. By then, he had fired his third police chief, Kevin Clark, and was eyeing the governor's race in 2006.

The Dixon era

Dixon might have helped save Graziano's job in 2005, but he returned to the hot seat two years later when O'Malley left for Annapolis and Dixon took over as mayor. Among the many Dixon aides pushing for his ouster was Otis Rolley, her first chief of staff. Like Austin, Rolley had worked under Graziano.

"It's not that I was keen on getting Paul out, I was keen on getting good leadership in," Rolley said recently. "Where I saw there was opportunity to make a change, I definitely advised the mayor."

Rolley, who is challenging Rawlings-Blake for the Democratic nomination for mayor, still believes that Graziano should be replaced.

"You cannot look at the condition of our neighborhoods and lack of planning and progress as it relates to housing and community development work and say it's OK," he said. (Rolley is on leave from a job at Austin's consulting firm, and Austin is supporting Rolley's campaign.)

Dixon confirmed that Rolley and other advisers urged her to jettison Graziano. In the end, she ignored the chorus.

"I listened to one particular person who felt I should keep him while things were kind of getting changed on goals I wanted to accomplish," she said.

She declined to name the adviser, but said, "To this day, I tell that person I shouldn't have listened to him."

After Dixon became mayor, she created a neighborhood investment division, and her boyfriend, Edward Anthony, was put in charge of efforts to sell city property.

By August 2007, the housing department had slowed the pace of offering city-owned properties for redevelopment.

Then as now, Dixon denied lobbying anyone in Graziano's agency to promote Anthony to his new post. Anthony, who could not be reached for comment, told The Baltimore Sun in 2007 that he was proud of his work and had been successful.

At the time, Graziano did not answer directly when a Sun reporter asked if he had intervened for Anthony, but it has long been widely believed that he put him in the job and enjoyed Dixon's protection in return.

Asked about the matter last month, Graziano was blunt: "When the mayor of the city tells you to put a person in a position, that's what happens."

Was he saying that Dixon told him to promote Anthony?

"Yes," Graziano said.

Dixon, however, insists that Graziano is wrong.

"I removed myself from being in any way involved" with the decision, she said.

Anthony no longer works for the housing agency. Dixon resigned as mayor in early 2010 as part of a plea deal to resolve corruption charges, and Anthony was laid off soon after.

'Vision deficit'?

With Dixon's resignation, Rawlings-Blake rose from City Council president to mayor. Her transition team offered some praise for Baltimore Housing, but also much criticism.

While the housing agency deserved credit for developing and implementing "an impressive array of real estate projects and social programs," the team wrote in a report, it "lacks a clear and coherent vision for revitalizing Baltimore neighborhoods."

Graziano was too focused on housing projects, the team reported, at the expense of the somewhat nebulous areas of community building and neighborhood development.

Because of a "vision deficit," it concluded, "Baltimore City misses out in the competition for private-sector financial resources and does not effectively tap the energy of neighborhood-focused citizens."

Graziano said the report was "stinging" but denies lacking vision. "The vision," he said, "is it's not one approach that fits all. There has to be a continuum of activity from major redevelopment down to the occasional call for code enforcement officers in a very strong neighborhood."

Indeed, he sounds more comfortable talking about specific projects and initiatives. He is proud that the housing agency could help 41,000 city households with utility bills last year, double the number of nine years ago. He notes that housing citations are now online and that a computerized system lets officials zero in on any parcel citywide to see myriad property details.

All told, he says, his agency has had a role in developing more than 70 percent of the 13,000 housing units built or begun in Baltimore over the past decade.

He points to progress on two large-scale housing redevelopment projects, Orchard Ridge in East Baltimore and the Uplands in West Baltimore, where construction is set to begin after a lengthy legal dispute. In Barclay, his team is collaborating with the Telesis Corp. to redevelop more than 300 scattered, publicly owned properties.

North of Johns Hopkins Hospital, his agency has invested millions of dollars as part of a $1.8 billion overhaul effort led by the nonprofit East Baltimore Development Inc. Amid the real estate market downturn, little of the planned housing has materialized.

Graziano is a nonvoting member of the group's board. His girlfriend, Arlene Conn, is its acquisition relocation director. EBDI officials and Graziano say he had no role in her hiring, and before Conn took the job several years ago, EBDI lawyer Michael A. Brown wrote an opinion stating that there was no conflict with her working there.

The reset button

Rawlings-Blake says she had heard complaints about the housing agency before becoming mayor and met with Graziano.

"I said to him, basically, 'Hit the reset button. These are the things I want to see. I'm not going to tell you who to hire, I'm not going to tell you who to fire. … I want you to develop a strong housing department that can meet the needs of our neighborhoods and can address the pressing challenges about vacant housing that we have.'"

Some in community development circles thought the transition report gave Rawlings-Blake the green light to fire Graziano.

Mark Cameron, executive director of the nonprofit Neighborhood Design Center, finds Graziano's survival remarkable.

"Why is he still here after 10 years and others are gone? I don't know," he said. He sees Graziano as "steady but not innovative."

Though Vacants to Value aims to streamline the sale of city-owned houses and to use code enforcement to pressure private owners, it addresses only one piece of the puzzle, says Cameron, who is affiliated with the Maryland Asset Building Community Development Network.

Community development, he says, encompasses physical improvements in neighborhoods as well as a broad spectrum of social services such as after-school programs. He argues that neither Graziano nor the mayor has articulated a "strategy that would be very clear, that would say, 'Here's how we are supporting community development.'"

Vincent Quayle counts himself a Graziano fan. As the foreclosure crisis deepened, he says the commissioner provided key support to the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, a nonprofit that helps homeowners struggling to pay their mortgages.

"Even without my asking, he found more block grant money to support our foreclosure program," said Quayle, who retired recently as its executive director.

Quayle says he believes that Graziano is genuinely humble. And like many others who have watched him over the years, he marvels at his ability to persevere in a tough job.

"Somehow he survived it," Quayle said. "I hope he writes the story someday about how he did it."

Name: Paul T. Graziano

Position: Baltimore housing commissioner

Age: 58

Education: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, bachelor's and master's degrees in planning

Family: Divorced father of adult twins; longtime boyfriend of Arlene Conn