Baltimore Housing Commissioner Patricia J. Payne will step down because of growing differences with Mayor Martin O'Malley and be replaced by a former New York City housing official.
The announcement last night by the mayor's office surprised housing advocates and a key City Council member who praised Payne. She was hired in February to turn around the much-criticized agency responsible for dealing with thousands of abandoned houses and a shortage of good homes for the poor.
Her resignation, effective the end of the month, was announced one week after angry Northeast Baltimore residents protested city plans to move public housing families into their neighborhood.
Although he didn't call it the only reason, O'Malley said the public housing protest was one of several growing differences that he had with his housing commissioner, the second Cabinet member to leave the less-than-year-old administration. The mayor, who replaced his initial police commissioner after clashing with him, said Payne's decision to resign was mutual.
"We were pretty much frustrated with each other," O'Malley said.
Payne could not be reached for comment. In a joint statement, Payne said she leaves with mixed feelings.
"Coming in the door, I was optimistic about the future of Baltimore's neighborhoods and the revitalization of the city," Payne said. "I continue to be optimistic as I leave, knowing that we are faced by significant challenges."
O'Malley is expected to announce today that he is replacing her with Paul T. Graziano, general manager from 1993 to last April of the New York City Housing Authority, the nation's largest public housing agency. He will take over a post that requires managing the city's Department of Housing and Community Development and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which runs public housing.
Graziano was responsible for management and repair of 180,000 public housing and federally subsidized housing units. The New York agency has a $2 billion budget.
Retired Judge Benjamin Brown, chairman of the Baltimore housing authority, welcomed the news of Graziano's hiring yesterday, saying he has the experience necessary to straighten out the city housing agencies.
"He seems to be a person with a lot of housing, managerial and interpersonal skills," Brown said. "There are a lot of things that need to be done."
O'Malley intended to hire Graziano to take over the housing authority, leaving Payne as head of the housing department. But that proved to be the final straw for Payne, who opposed the move, according to administration sources.
In a recent conversation, Payne suggested to O'Malley that Graziano take over both housing agencies, a source familiar with the decision said. The mayor agreed.
Payne is a former state secretary of housing who lost that job in 1998 when she differed with Gov. Parris N. Glendening over his Smart Growth policies.
Challenges from the start
Payne started her career as a Pennsylvania Avenue community organizer 35 years ago. She faced huge challenges in taking over city housing agencies trying to manage 40,000 vacant or abandoned homes and about 17,000 public housing units.
In her first press conference in March, Payne announced that the housing department's main computer had crashed, leaving workers to manually process federal rent subsidy vouchers for 11,000 tenants each month. The problem resulted in up to three months of delays in paying landlords who were housing poor city families.
In June, Payne told nonprofit groups providing literacy classes to family shelters that they would lose money this year because of the city's need to pay for the borrowing against future federal grants by her predecessor, Daniel P. Henson III. Payne estimated that as much as one-third of the city's $30 million federal grants must be dedicated to repaying city housing developments.
In July, a city government study by downtown business leaders recommended extensive departmental changes that included privatizing city property management, closing Neighborhood Service Centers and moving housing authority police into the city police department.
Yesterday, O'Malley credited Payne with being knowledgeable about the development side of housing issues. Under her tenure, O'Malley unveiled two programs to spruce up city neighborhoods: Healthy Neighborhoods and Main Streets.
"I appreciate the effort Pat Payne put into trying to help us turn our housing agency around," O'Malley said. "She accepted a difficult and demanding responsibility at a time when our department was in desperate need of leadership."
However, O'Malley added that managing the large department appeared overwhelming for Payne, who was responsible for 2,200 city employees and a $300 million annual budget for services ranging from sheltering the homeless to issuing building permits.