With 1,685 low-income families and seniors waiting for subsidized housing, the Anne Arundel Housing Authority is scrambling to repair boarded-up units and considering new management strategies.
Maintenance workers have rehabbed 34 empty units since the end of January, when the agency started "Project Vacancy," an ambitious program to end high vacancy rates in the seven county housing projects. At least 94 units still are vacant, some boarded up since 1988. But the authority hopes to renovate and lease most in the next seven months.
The agency's supervisory board discussed long-range plans Thursday night, including restoring the occupancy level to meet standards recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and possibly merging with the Annapolis Housing Authority.
A complete merger would require special state legislation, said board Chairman Charles St. Lawrence. Although it's too late in the General Assembly session to introduce such a bill, St. Lawrence said he believes the two agencies could start networking informally.
By sharing computer information on waiting lists, both agencies could place homeless families and poor seniors in public housing more quickly, he said.
Other board members agreed the idea warrants further discussion. St. Lawrence told his colleagues that he was asked to consider a merger months ago while sailing with Annapolis Housing Authority directors Harold S. Greene and Roger "Pip" Moyer. He said he delayed mentioning the conversation because "interest seems to have waned."
Six hours before St. Lawrence brought up the merger, County Executive Robert R. Neall said he's considering creating an Office of Housing and Community Development. The umbrella agency would oversee the county housing authority, urban renewal, and related community development organizations, Neall said.
Asked about Neall's suggestion, St. Lawrence said he believes a cooperative agency that "brought some diverse and spread-out resources together could do significantly more than we can do alone." While pointing out that public housing authorities operate independently under state law, he added that he "would welcome the opportunity to cooperate on some things."
"In Anne Arundel County, the market-rate housing right now does not meet the needs of low- and very-low income people," he said. "There are things we could do, at no cost to the county, to produce more affordable housing."
Bringing the housing authorities together with related organizations under one roof is not a new idea, Greene said. An affordable housing task force, chaired by Councilwoman Maureen Lamb, D-Annapolis, considered the concept last year.
"I'm not sure how that would work," he said. "It seems to me there could be an overlapping of authority. But it's certainly a plan that needs to be considered."
In contrast to the county housing authority, Annapolis now boasts a 98 percent occupancy rate in its 10 projects. The once-troubled authority has "no problem" leasing its 1,104 units since at least 700 people are on the waiting list, said Calvin Allen, director of housing. When units are vacated,they usually are renovated and leased within 20 days.
The county authority has drafted a two-year comprehensive plan to restore its occupancy rate, now lagging at 88 percent, back to the 97 percent range. HUD standards call for a 97 percent occupancy rate and an average turnover time of 25 days.
Some of the empty units have been placed in reserve until the agency gets modernization money from HUD to makethem handicapped accessible. The agency still has $195,000 in Community Development Block Grant money, earmarked by the county in 1988 and 1989 for handicapped modifications to the Burwood Gardens senior project and the Freetown multifamily project.
A HUD official met with the supervisory board Thursday night to offer guidance in resubmitting an application for modernization funds. Bill Tamborino promised to offer the board some assistance inrevising a proposal for $4 million to renovate and provide handicapped modifications to the older projects.
Tamborino also offered to help the board screen applicants for executive director. More than 118 people already have applied to take the post left by June C. Waller in January. Waller resigned after20 months to return to her family in Colorado.
While hurrying to fill 94 empty units, the vast majority in the two family housing projects, the board has a vacancy of its own. One of the seats on the seven-member board has been vacant for a year.
St. Lawrence said he initially hoped to have a tenant from one of the authority's projects appointed. But he said he's had a tough time finding a suitable candidate.
Referring to the executive backgrounds and enthusiasm of the board members, he said: "I don't want to sound like a snob. But I dowant to hold high standards."
Board members are appointed by the county executive. Neall said he was aware the authority was looking for another executive director, but did not know a seat on the board is vacant. He promised to "check into it."