Struggling to overcome high vacancy rates in the county's public housing projects, the Anne Arundel Housing Authority started cleaning house by replacing the head of its leasing department.
Miguel Novoa,occupancy supervisor for the beleaguered agency, was asked to resignlate last week. His departure comes less than two months after the last executive director, June C. Waller, abruptly resigned and announced she was returning to Colorado.
Housing officials said renovated units sat empty and at least 100Section 8 certificates remained unused during Novoa's one-year term.Meanwhile, 666 low-income families and seniors await public housing,and another 1,019 are signed up for Section 8, a federal rent subsidy program.
But Novoa blamed the maintenance department for the ongoing vacancy problems and said he became a "scapegoat" for worried housing administrators.
"When they talk about the vacancies, it sounds like the occupancy (department) is not doing its work," he said. "But that is not the truth. We had people ready to move in, but they didn't turn over the units."
Defending his work at the agency, Novoa said he always had families ready to move into Meade Village and Freetown, the two multifamily housing projects.
Because units remained boarded up, he said, the occupancy department ended up screening prospective tenants a second and third time when their background checks expired every 120 days. Novoa also contended that not a single empty unit was turned over in November and December.
Maintenance workers have renovated 34 empty units since the end of January, when the agency started "Project Vacancy," an ambitious program to fill 94 vacancies in the seven housing projects. But Novoa predicted that rate could not last because most of those units were one-bedroom apartmentsand efficiencies, which take less time to rehab.
Sandra Ervin, acting executive director, informed the agency's supervisory board lastThursday that she was asking for Novoa's resignation, Chairman Charles St. Lawrence said. At the same time, she told the board she would request the resignation of Steven Seiglein, a trainee who worked under Novoa renewing leases. Both offered their resignations Friday.
St. Lawrence dismissed Novoa's claims as "sour grapes." Though he admitted an attempt to quickly turn over units by hiring outside contractors failed last fall, he said maintenance crews are scrambling to boost the occupancy rate -- now lagging at 88 percent -- to the 97 percent standard recommended by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"I met with the staff Thursday afternoon and talked about the importance of everybody doing 110 percent," he said. "The vacancy level had better be decreased. If we don't, we'll go bankrupt."
The authority loses both rent and the matching HUD subsidy on every vacant unit. HUD officials from the Baltimore office have asked theagency for a comprehensive, two-year occupancy plan. A draft versionwas given to the board last week.
Glendale Johnson, an administrative assistant at the authority who headed the occupancy department before Novoa, has replaced him as acting supervisor. Novoa is on administrative leave until his resignation takes effect March 15.
"We're all focused on one goal -- and that's Project Vacancy," Ervin said."We don't feel his leaving will have any negative impact on that."
Though busy renovating empty units, some vacant since 1988, the maintenance department also is scheduled to replace broken handrails andsteps in Meade Village apartments this week.
The repairs were requested by the county Health Department in a final order issued last year.
When environmental health officials inspected Meade Village in
January 1990, they found hundreds of violations, ranging from leaking kitchen sinks to loose bath tiles to mice and roaches. The 200-unit project has been without a license since then.
Most of the problems cited in a 29-page report have been fixed. The authority is finishing a few repairs, including repairing furnace rooms in 120 town homes.
Debbie Laird, assistant section chief of the environmental health division, said she believes a new policy on inspecting units contributed to the vacancy rate. Before Waller took over the agency inJune 1989, health inspectors were called to check units after they were leased to new tenants. Waller insisted on renovating the units and having them inspected before tenants could move in, Laird said.
"The turnover used to be real fast because they would move tenants inwithout fixing the units," she said. "Then the tenants would complain to me that everything broken was already there."
Since maintenance workers were busy correcting violations, they had less time to focus on vacant units. The authority spent much of last summer rehabbingMeade Village bathrooms, Laird said.
In a Feb. 28 letter to the Health Department, Ervin promised a laundry list of new violations andoutstanding problems would be corrected within 30 days. Health officials usually give the agency extensions to work on longer projects, such as fixing up the 120 furnace rooms, Laird said.