VACANT, BATTERED UNITS MIRROR HOUSING AUTHORITY'S STATE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They've spent a year on the move, living out of suitcases in relatives' homes, more afraid each day that they'll never find a place of their own.

John and Susan need an apartment by the end of March so their 17-year-old daughter can return from a drug-treatment program. But their options look bleak. Though No. 47 on the county Housing Authority's long waiting list, the couple has been warned not to expect an opening soon.

At least 1,685 low-income families and senior citizens in the county are waiting for subsidized housing. Most live in overcrowded apartments with family and friends. Some end up homeless, living on the streets or in shelters.

Even though applicants like John and Susan,whose names were changed to protect their identity, routinely are told they're in for a long wait, 82 of the county's 1,026 public housing units remain empty. The vast majority are in the two multifamily projects, which are in far greater demand than the five senior complexes.

Every other building at Meade Village has at least one vacant unit. The 200-unit family project about two miles from Fort Meade has only an 82 percent occupancy rate, far below standards recommended bythe U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

All 12 apartments in one graffiti-scarred building have been boarded up for overa year. Byron Paige, who lives next door to the empty, padlocked building, wonders why the apartments continue to sit vacant month after month. Looking across the street at three empty town houses, he shakes his head in disgust.

In Pasadena's Freetown, the younger of the two family projects, 25 of the 154 units are empty. Piles of garbage and broken bottles litter the floors of units that tenants say have been abandoned for two years.

Drug dealers are using empty apartments in both communities as a hide-out to cook crack cocaine, tenants and police say. One Meade Village resident, who refused to give her name because she fears drug dealers in her building, called the vacant apartment across from her "a crack den."

"Every time everything's ready to go, somebody busts in and messes it up again," she said. "They go in and do drugs. It's bad to raise kids around here with that stuff right across the hall."

Maintenance workers have boarded up the broken windows and cleaned out some of the empty units. But routine upkeep has been neglected, leaving broken stairs, halls smelling ofurine and playgrounds littered with broken glass. A large section ofsiding is missing from the Meade health center, and a ripped piece of plastic flaps in the window frame.

After more than a year without a maintenance supervisor, the authority named one in November, John E. Wenzel. Housing officials also are considering reinstating on-site managers to supervise the family projects.

The maintenance problems and high vacancy rate have outraged housing advocates and drawn criticism from county officials. Some contend the authority is failingits basic mission -- to provide housing for the poor. Others call the empty units the most visible symptom of the agency's continuing management and communication problems.

"We have people coming in every day who just need shelter to stay off the streets," said Yevola Peters, head of the Community Action Agency's housing program. "Therefore, the problem with the vacant units is really very serious."

Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a county civil rights activist, called the vacancy rate "unconscionable." Jean Creek, director of the AnneArundel chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said she wants to meet with the authority's acting director because "certainly this is a big concern with so many people who need homes." And three County Council members expressed surprise and concern about the boarded-up units.

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The vacancy rate, whichcosts valuable HUD subsidies and has become a top priority for housing officials, is the latest chapter in the agency's troubled history.

Years of frequent management turnover, administrative mistakes, dropping financial reserves and maintenance problems have left the authority in disarray. Employee morale fell as salaries lagged behind those paid to county employees.

In the last six years, four directors have headed the authority. The most recent, June C. Waller, arrived in summer 1989 with hopes of turning the agency around. Last month,she unexpectedly announced she was moving back to Colorado.

Her predecessor, Vincent O. Leggett, resigned in January 1989 after reports of lavish spending and budgetary irregularities, including buying afour-wheel drive laden with expensive options, spending thousands onfood and travel and installing a luxury executive suite at the Glen Square senior project.

The authority's reserve fund had fallen by almost a third, from $770,000 in January 1987 to $531,000 in June 1988, by the time Leggett ended his two-year directorship to take a position with Anne Arundel Community College.

He also left in his wakea trend toward growing vacancy rates. HUD officials, who had cautioned the agency about its declining financial health, turned down an application for $4 million to modernize the older projects, including Meade Village and Burwood Gardens in Glen Burnie.

The authority spent six months trying to recover lost ground, acknowledged Finance Director Sandra A. Ervin, acting director until a replacement for Walleris found. "We were very close to becoming financially troubled, and I think that cast a shadow over the authority managerially."

A former deputy director of the Colorado Springs Housing Authority, Wallerarrived in June with an ambitious agenda to rebuild the agency and improve morale among its 43 employees. She met with tenants and advocates for the poor, had a luncheon to honor outstanding employees and mapped out a plan to get $1.6 million from HUD for roofing repairs.

Her enthusiasm was contagious. When Meade Village started a children's program, she showed up and promptly chipped in her own money for sodas and prizes.

"She gave $5 on the spot to pay for a prize in a dance contest," recalled Lewis Bracy, leader of Blacks for Success, who runs the martial arts and self-esteem program.

During an interview with The Anne Arundel County Sun that summer, Waller emphasized her goal of hiring more maintenance workers and repairing rundown units, so tenants would not go another nine years without fresh paint on their walls. She also pledged to beat HUD's occupancy standard of 97 percent.

A few months later, when the Annapolis Housing Authority started renovating Boston Heights, Waller approached the Community Action Agency and suggested relocating some tenants to the county projects.

"She was concerned that some people would be out of housing, and she had all these empty units," Peters recalled. "But she told methe maintenance budget was so underfunded they couldn't do the renovations."

Asked about the dilemma, Ervin had no explanation. The authority allocates a third of its $2.8 million operating budget for maintenance, she said.

Waller could not be reached to clarify her remarks because she has moved to Denver and her telephone isn't hooked up yet.

Despite her "do it now" enthusiasm, little had improved when Waller left the agency after 20 months.

Mistakes such as installing locks on the outside doors at Meade Village, only to have to remove them a month later because they violated fire code regulations, wasted precious money. Lack of communication between the leasing and maintenance departments left renovated units empty.

Though its reserves are stabilized at $600,000, the authority still hasn't received the $4 million it requested from HUD. The agency's last five-year plan for improvement, a linchpin to getting money for rehabbing old buildings, was sent back in December. HUD officials found a series of deficiencies in the plan, including problems with management, budgeting and assessing the aging buildings.

The authority's supervisory board will review the HUD recommendations Wednesday, said Chairman Charles St. Lawrence, a Severna Park resident and U.S. Census Bureau officer.

"Frankly, (HUD) didn't think we're in a position to effectively deal with that money," St. Lawrence said. "I see that plan as a subsidized housing. Councilman David G. Boschert, D-Crownsville, who is worried about flooding in Odenton's newly built Stoney Hill senior proejct, said he believes the council should meet more fequently with authority officials.

"We don't have any relationship, really," saidCouncilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis. She added that the council met with the authority in late January for the first time in nearly five years.

Lamb, who chaired a task force on affordable housing, said she believes the biggest problem is maintaining the units. Withoutproper upkeep and regular inspections, she said, the projects easilycan become unmanageable and cost thousands of dollars to repair.

St. Lawrence agreed, saying the high vacancy rate has grown over the past year as housing officials enforced a strict eviction policy and tried renovating units to a higher standard.

"There used to be a mind-set that these are poor people, so what the hell," he said. "Now we want to make sure they're fixed up enough so any member of this board would be willing to live there."

The authority spends $6,000 fixing up each unit, he said. But St. Lawrence couldn't explain why somany units were renovated and then remained empty, except to say that some are too large for today's families.

Ironically, despite thehigh vacancy rate and 1,685-name waiting list, the authority has been forced to advertise for families to fill the five- and six-bedroom units. Some of the large apartments originally were placed "in reserve" while the authority waited for HUD money. The boarded-up building of one-bedroom apartments at Meade was scheduled to be converted intotwo-bedroom units with handicapped access, St. Lawrence said, until money became scarce.

HUD officials, who maintain the authority canafford to begin the reovations, have asked for a comprehensive occupancy plan and revised long-term agenda before any more money is allocated. Officials from the Baltimore office inspected the authority in November and suggested a number of improvements to "problem areas," especially upkeep, hiring on-site managers and filling the long-empty units, a spokeswoman said.

Agency officials, scrambling to renovate units where plaster walls have been knocked down (to mix with crack, police say), believe they will soon match the Annapolis Housing Authority's 98 percent occupancy rate. But housing advocates, worried bythe authority's bad track record, say the efforts are late.

"You really have to watch the vacancy rate," said Janet S. Owens, who headed the authority from 1986 to 1987 and now serves as a judge at Orphans Court. "If you have units sitting vacant for a long time, they're going to cost you more and more in repairs before you get people in."

Ervin hopes to improve communication between the leasing and maintenance departments. She also says on-site managers will end many of the ongoing problems.

"I think we need a good, comprehensive plan to deal with all these issues, or we're never going to be able to be a really successful housing authority," she said.

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