Vacant, Battered Units Mirror Housing Authority's State

February 24, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

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.


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.

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