Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has hired a private attorney to study ways to improve the management of the troubled Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
Edward Hitchcock was hired by the mayor on Monday -- the day Housing Authority Executive Director Robert W. Hearn shook up the authority's top management by firing Deputy Executive Director Juanita Clark Harris and transferring James Martin, director of the division of housing management, to work on special projects for the authority.
Mr. Hitchcock, an attorney with the local firm of Tydings & Rosenberg, has some experience in public housing issues. He is a former general counsel to the Housing Assistance Corp., a local nonprofit housing-development company, and is the city's deputy counsel in a controversial lawsuit between Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over a $25 million federal housing grant.
Following a 90-day study of the Housing Authority that will include touring developments and interviewing tenants, Mr. Hitchcock is to submit a written report to the mayor.
"It's pretty clear that public housing is suffering from a variety of problems," Mr. Hitchcock said last night. "Crime, drugs and a shortfall of sanitation and maintenance as well as a perception problem that goes to the marketability of the homes. This thing isn't going to turn around overnight."
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said the mayor hired Mr. Hitchcock because a crisis rooted in violence, vandalism and soaring vacancy rates has beset public housing over the past year.
There is an overall 18 percent vacancy rate in the city's 18 public high-rises and potential tenants are rejecting apartments in the high-rises because of crime and vandalism. The rejections come at a time when the city has a waiting list of 26,800 families for public housing.
Last week, Mr. Hearn unveiled a plan to close one of the blighted high-rises in Lexington Terrace in West Baltimore and move the 69 families who live there to another rundown high-rise in the complex. The controversial plan has been rejected by the residents.
Mr. Hitchcock said that Mr. Hearn cannot manage the problems that currently beset the authority. The mayor's action, however, is not a vote of no confidence in Mr. Hearn's overall abilities, the lawyer said.
"Dr. Hearn has other matters on his plate that are more important," Mr. Hitchcock said. "He doesn't have the time to deal with this agency on a day-to-day basis."
The citywide vacancy rate is 5 percent in the 18,300 units that include high-rise and low-rise buildings in public housing developments and scattered-site dwellings, a Housing Authority spokesman said. But Ms. Clarke told the Housing Authority board yesterday that she is concerned because the overall vacancy rate was only 1 percent five years ago.
In Monday's shake-up, Mr. Hearn named Danise Jones-Dorsey to replace Ms. Harris for at least six months and Emmanuel Price to oversee the daily operations of public housing. Both are former members of Mr. Schmoke's staff, who have no experience in public housing management.
Both were chided at yesterday's board meeting by public housing tenants who challenged their ability to manage the authority, which has 1,400 employees.
"Correct, I have no experience in housing," Ms. Jones-Dorsey said. "I don't believe a manager needs to have specific subject skills in an area. I am willing to rise to the challenge and take the risk to use my management skills to change the direction in public housing."