Housing Authority 'savior' battles critics' reproach AH Greene corrects old ills new problems crop up

January 17, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

When Harold S. Greene took over the troubled Annapolis Housing Authority in 1989, he was heralded as the savior who could turn around years of neglect and the demoralizing effects of a corruption scandal.

His reputation grew rapidly as he corrected lingering problems at the city's 10 public housing communities. But recently, the man who restored the agency's public image has come under a wave of public criticism.

At least one housing commissioner has openly challenged Mr. Greene's administration of the 1,103 public housing units. Many tenants are up in arms over proposed lease changes. And federal housing officials have expressed concern over delays in responding to periodic management reviews.

Meanwhile, the Inspector General's Office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is auditing financial records for the past three years.

It was a probe begun by that agency five years ago that led to the conviction in Nov. 1988 of Arthur G. Strissel Jr., the former executive director, on charges of fraud, bid-rigging and taking kickbacks. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and released on parole recently.

One of the six auditors who has been reviewing the agency's books for the last three months told J. Walter Sterling, a member of the board of commissioners, that the authority's travel expenses seemed high. Last month, Mr. Sterling blocked a planned trip to a January training conference in San Diego. The board is now re-evaluating travel.

"It just looks bad to have this audit going on so long," said one housing official, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

But Mr. Greene maintains that the audit is unlikely to uncover any evidence of misconduct. He says he's been taken aback by the criticism, which he calls "totally blown out of proportion."

Sitting in his office, surrounded by plaques commending his work, Mr. Greene expressed frustration over the controversy.

"It really sends a bad, bad signal to the community," he said. "This authority did not enjoy a good reputation until four years ago. We've changed it in the eyes of HUD, we've changed it in the eyes of the Annapolis community, and we've changed it in the eyes of our residents. Public housing is no longer something you can point to in disgrace."

The Rev. Rufus Abernethy, another board member, also is surprised by "all this contention."

"I don't know what's going on here," he said.

Indeed, most of the apartment complexes have undergone a radical transformation. Mr. Greene has succeeded in fixing up many dilapidated apartments and mobilizing police and tenants to combat drug trafficking.

Although the agency has been faulted by HUD for a slow turnaround of vacant apartments, 99 percent of them are leased.

In many American cities, management and funding problems have left up to a third of the public housing units vacant. Rows of boarded-up apartments stand empty in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Mr. Greene says his critics have focused on a few problems that he calls "errors in judgment." He acknowledges that there have been several administrative glitches, including not paying a children's club for four months and failing to hire drug counselors under a $250,000 federal grant.

But his explanations have not satisfied everyone. HUD officials in Baltimore have questioned why it took Mr. Greene months to respond to a December 1991 review. The report was positive, but pinpointed a few problems, including a large number of administrators.

Mr. Sterling said he's been concerned about Mr. Greene's management since 1991, when few contractors were bidding on renovations projects. The board also has questioned change orders that have cost thousands of dollars.

"This is something you have to watch out for," Mr. Sterling said. He said Mr. Greene apparently got used to the board "rubber stamping" every request and that he "no longer trusts" the executive director.

Mr. Sterling and other commissioners raised questions last week about delays in renovating buildings at Harbour House. Tenants were supposed to move back into the first buildings by the end of January, but a dispute with the contractor halted construction a month ago.

The failure to hire drug counselors to work in the communities has frustrated Emily Green, the city's director of community services and substance abuse, and Randy Jones, chairman of the Mayor's SubstanceAbuse Advisory Council.

"It's been a waste of money and resources," Ms. Green said.

Meanwhile, many of the 5,000 residents are angry over proposed lease changes required by HUD that would reduce the grace period for late rent from seven to five days, and apply rent money to repairs when a tenant damages an apartment.

Alderman Dean Johnson, whose ward includes three of the public housing communities, said residents "have not been pleased by the way they've been treated." Some have called Mr. Greene, a blunt-speaking man from White Plains, N.Y., "high-handed," he said.

Even amid the criticism, Mr. Greene retains many ardent fans.

"I think he's done an excellent job," said Alderman Sam Gilmer, whose third ward includes two public housing projects.

Dallas Evans, head of the city's Community Action Agency, which serves the poor, said Mr. Greene "is to be commended for the job he's done in stabilizing the Housing Authority."

Alderman Carl Snowden, D-Ward 5, said Mr. Greene has done "a bang-up job. . . .

Of all the jobs in the world, I wouldn't want to be the director of public housing," he said.

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