HOUSING AUTHORITY FIGHTS TO OVERCOME PAST WOES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Scarred by years of poor management, the county Housing Authority faces a stiff challenge in overcoming lax maintenance and long-standingvacancy problems at its public housing projects, a series of federalreviews shows.

Federal housing officials, who have grown increasingly frustrated with the agency in the past three years, were more upbeat during their most recent monitoring visit.

They gave the authority a satisfactory rating, a good score considering its history of "marginally satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" rankings. Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development also suggested the upcoming appointment of a new executive director offers "an opportunity to re-establish direction" and were encouraged by plans to finish filling long-empty apartments, some vacant since 1988.

But even though their two-day review in March was one of the most positive in years, HUD officials raised some of the same concerns that have cropped up again and again.

Documents obtained by the Anne Arundel County Sun reveal that HUD repeatedly has pressed the authority to reduce the backlog of empty units, inspect and repair communities more often and improve hiring practices. HUD officials from Baltimore also have complained about the long waiting list and called the administration of rent subsidies "unsatisfactory."

County housing employees are struggling to correct problems cited as early as spring 1989. They have mapped out plans to improve serving theauthority's more than 5,000 residents, mostly seniors. Five of the seven apartment complexes are earmarked for seniors, two for families.

In recent months, HUD officials have expressed confidence that the agency is turning the corner. Still, it won't be easy to erase someof the lingering concerns, the HUD records show.

A legacy of administrative mistakes has damaged the agency's reputation, hurt employee morale and cost the agency valuable subsidies and modernization grants. Described by HUD as "historically a troubled housing authority,"it still is fighting the effects of frequent management turnover andwhat HUD described as poor judgment calls. The records show:

* Maintenance often languished between fitful efforts at finishing long-awaited repairs.

Repairs at five projects were postponed for several years. The rehabilitation of a 12-unit building at Meade Village, planned since 1987, wasn't completed because HUD considered the agencypoorly run and withheld the money.

The agency only started regular maintenance inspections when June C. Waller, the last executive director, took over in summer 1989. Waller, who was dismissed six monthsago after failing to lower the high vacancy rates, succeeded in renovating the kitchens and bathrooms at Meade Village. But midway through her 18-month term, HUD officials were worried about preventive maintenance again.

* Waller inherited an agency known for poor management and growing vacancy rates. Yet her plans to fill the empty units were never realized.

She was faulted by HUD in August 1990 for failing to submit a comprehensive occupancy plan, which was finally turned in by the authority two months ago. In fall 1990, she spent $32,783 to hire outside contractors to renovate units, but filled less than10 in two months.

* Both Waller and her predecessor, Vincent O. Leggett, created and filled positions without advertising them as required by the agency's personnel policy.

Leggett, who resigned in January 1989 and now serves on the county Board of Education, also was criticized for awarding contracts without seeking bids and giving himself and top administrators steep pay raises.

Waller kept a tight rein on spending, but bypassed the policy for expanding the staff while hiring at least four people in 1990.

* Section 8 certificates and vouchers, the federal rent subsidies, were unused. Attempts to cope with the county's shrinking supply of low-income housing and still meet HUD standards for issuing the certificates have failed so far.

* Policies that didn't comply with federal standards were developedby past executive directors and approved by the Board of Commissioners.

While questioning the agency's plans to correct the problems at times, HUD reported it has been impressed by the commitment to makechanges. Some plans appear to have failed because they were too ambitious. In March 1990, Lee A. Palman, chief of the assisted housing management branch, cautioned Waller that she could not "accomplish manyof the objectives" she had set.

Others became mired in bureaucratic tangles -- lengthy discussions by the governing board or ongoing exchanges with the federal government.

In January, for instance, board chairman Charles St. Lawrence said he was frustrated with months of stagnation in ending the authority's high vacancy rates. Only 88 percent of the 1,026 units were occupied, well below HUD's standard of97 percent. The number had not decreased much by hiring outside contractors.

St. Lawrence said he was "livid" about the vacant units and suggested a management audit might be helpful in resolving some long-standing problems. He said no management study had been done before, but he thought "an improved audit would be very helpful to the board."

His colleagues on the board still haven't discussed a management audit.

In May, St. Lawrence said a proposal for an expanded, three-year audit was sitting on his desk at home. Asked about it againthis month, he said he knew "nothing about a management study."

It's unclear why the agency has been unable to shake some of its lingering problems. One contributing factor has been the frequent turnover, since each new executive director has tried out new ideas. Four directors have left in the last six years.

The staff has suffered changes with each new management philosophy. Waller took on-site housingmanagers and assigned them to a rotating schedule. Now they're back supervising the individual communities.

Meanwhile, maintenance workers were assigned by Waller to various projects to repair units thathad been neglected. But the new maintenance supervisor, John Wenzel,has them reporting to one central office these days.

The occupancy director, a housing manager and the coordinator of the authority's modernization program have been dismissed since Waller left. Glenndale Johnson, who was re-assigned when the last occupancy director was hired, has taken over that department again.

The authority's success in renovating and leasing the empty units in recent months has boosted employee morale again. Sandra Ervin, the acting executive director, said she believes the hard work is paying off and many of the old problems will be resolved soon.

She and St. Lawrence are looking ahead and trying to put the agency's past to rest. One day, they hope the records will look different, though HUD's continuing concerns over the past three years suggest that change could take some time.

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