Housing Board Loses Minority Voice

April 16, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

Anne Arundel's public housing board lost its only minority voice last week, prompting housing advocates to again call for increased tenant representation.

Shirley Alexander, the only black member on the volunteer board, unexpectedly announced she was stepping down midway through her five-year term. Her resignation comes just a month after a year-long vacancy on the seven-member board was filled.

"I enjoyed what I did, but I thought it was time for me to go," said the 47-year-old Bay Ridge resident, who joined the authority fouryears ago. She first served two years of a previous member's term before being reappointed by former County Executive O. James Lighthizer.

Citing changes on the board, Alexander said she felt increasingly "removed from the committee." An Army personnel specialist at FortMeade, Alexander joined the board to do community work. She supported improvements to Meade Village and Freetown, two family housing projects with high vacancy rates and drug-related crime.

"She cared alot about the communities," said Stella Benesch, a resident of the Glen Square senior complex in Glen Burnie, who retired in February 1990 after 15 years on the board.

Board Chairman Charles St.Lawrence said he was surprised by Alexander's sudden resignation. "She'll be missed," he said.

Alexander resigned three weeks after opposing a proposal to recruit police officers to live in Meade Village and Freetown.

Hoping to combat drug dealing and rising violence in both communities, the board voted in March to invite county police officers to live there and pay the same rent as low-income families.

Alexander objected, saying every available unit should be leased to families on the authority's long waiting list. She also pointed out that tenants could feel intimidated if they thought officers were invited to monitor them.

"We're trying to build communities, not prisons," she said then.

But Alexander said her differences with the board over enlisting police officers as tenants did not prompt her resignation.

"I just felt there have been a lot of changes, and I needed to separate myself from them," she said.

She declined to elaborate on those changes or discuss the agency's leadership troubles and high vacancy rates.

Since January, the agency has been scrambling to renovate and lease nearly 100 vacant units, some boarded up since 1988. While focusing on "Project Vacancy," the agency dismissed the head of its leasing department and the coordinator of its long-term modernization program.

The board also is seeking another executive directorto replace June C. Waller, who was asked to resign in January. One of the seats on the board was vacant during most of Waller's 20-month directorship. County Executive Robert R. Neall recently appointed James J. Riley, a retired school teacher and former Republican candidatefor the House of Delegates, to the seat.

Riley's appointment upset housing advocates who said a tenant from one of the projects shouldhave been chosen. With Alexander's resignation, former board member Cecil Burton and other housing advocates have called for appointing atenant.

"We're trying to work around to get someone from the tenant council on that the people would rally behind," Burton said.

St. Lawrence said he's willing to appoint a tenant if a suitable candidate can be found.

When asked whether he thought a minority representative should be appointed, St. Lawrence replied: "I think the composition of the board should reflect the composition of the county."

He repeated the same answer when asked whether the board should reflect the housing communities. Most of the tenants either are senior citizens living on fixed incomes or families headed by single women. InMeade Village and Freetown, the majority of residents are minority families.

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