District judge threatens city with contempt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Threatening to hold the Baltimore housing authority in contempt, a Baltimore District Court judge has sharply criticized a major subsidized rent program, terming its administration "abominable."

According to a tape of a court hearing held Aug. 22, Judge Askew Gatewood Jr. noted phone calls that went unanswered and the inability of tenants and landlords in the Section 8 program to get access to the rental assistance office.

Housing authority officials "have disgusted me over and over," Gatewood said at the hearing, held in the case of a tenant who was seeking to get her new apartment approved for the subsidy program.

The judge then said that if the tenant was not given an appointment and the case before him resolved, "I will consider holding this department in contempt. Something I would love to do."

Gatewood's sharp admonishment of Michael Kramer, the housing authority official responsible for the rental program, is an indication of widespread concerns about the program by landlords, tenants and others.

Gatewood issued the warning after Kramer said that he had no information about the pending case because he had been summoned to the hearing only the day before. Kramer then said he wanted "my lawyer here" before the case was resolved.

The problems raised at the hearing were settled without Gatewood issuing a contempt order. But city housing officials, apparently angered by the exchange, filed a complaint against Gatewood with the administrative judge of the city's district courts, Keith E. Mathews.

Gatewood confirmed that a complaint had been filed, but said it would be up to Mathews to determine whether the complaint and his response could be made public.

Neither Mathews nor housing authority officials would comment.

Gatewood hears many Section 8 cases, including others the day of the hearing last month. In a brief interview, he acknowledged that he owns rental properties in the city but said that only a small fraction were in the Section 8 program. State corporation records list Gatewood as the resident agent for Monumental City Realty.

More than 10,000 tenants participate in the city's federally funded Section 8 program, which provides rent subsidies to those meeting income limits. Landlords participate voluntarily, agreeing to inspections of their rental units.

Housing authority officials would not comment on the Aug. 22 hearing and Gatewood's comments. They acknowledge there have been complaints about Section 8 but insist they have made substantial progress in improving the program and responding to complaints registered by federal officials two years ago. A federal audit labeled the program "barely functional," noting long waiting lists and poor administration.

Lyle Schumann, deputy executive director of the housing authority, said that during a recent visit officials of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development expressed satisfaction with progress in the Section 8 program.

Three employees assigned to the Section 8 office recently resigned, and now about 10 vacant positions exist, Schumann acknowledged. He said the employees "left on their own" but indicated they were unhappy with the demands being made on them.

"We continue to raise the bar," said Schumann. "We are very clear about what our expectations are. We haven't been satisfied with the speed or quality of response by some staff."

Schumann said that major progress has been made in establishing appropriate rent levels for the subsidy program.

"Frankly there are units that we have been paying too much for," he added. "Clearly those rents have been too high."

"Now we have a very solid database," said Schumann. "For the first time we are able to evaluate and compare the comparables."

Some landlords have complained that the authority cut rents arbitrarily and that they have had problems getting units inspected or reinspected.

"You call on the phone and no one answers. You go down to see them and they won't let you talk," one landlord, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, wrote in a recent letter of complaint to federal housing officials.

Schumann acknowledged the complaints but said the reinspection problem rests with the landlords.

"We shouldn't have to do reinspections," Schumann said, adding that landlords know when the inspectors are coming for initial inspections. He said that nearly half the units that fail their initial inspection also fail the reinspection.

"We need [landlords] to take the inspections seriously. We are not jumping the minute they say, 'Come back out,'" he said.

Schumann said that the agency now has a customer relations department but noted, "We have more left to do."

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