City housing chief purges agency staff

Disarray of Section 8 leads to departure of 2 top administrators

Third official resigns

`Serious' problems with program said to stretch back years

March 18, 2001|By Gady A. Epstein and Neal Thompson | Gady A. Epstein and Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Beginning to make his mark on one of the city's most troubled agencies, Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano has forced out two top administrators in a major shake-up of the Section 8 rent-subsidy program.

The acting deputy executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City also left the agency Friday in what Graziano said was a voluntary decision made after he hired an outside candidate to fill the job permanently.

Graziano said the Section 8 dismissals reflect concerns he and federal regulators have about the program.

He described a program in disarray during an interview Friday, a week after accepting the resignations of Gary A. Markowski, director of housing opportunities, and Floryne E. Howard, the Section 8 chief, both of whom had worked for the city for more than two decades.

"There are serious administrative problems in the program, and it was not acceptable to any parties to continue operating the program in that fashion," Graziano said, adding that the problems seem to date back years. "We're really in there just looking at everything at this point to see what the full depth of the problems are."

Markowski declined to comment. "It's a personal matter with me," he said. "I'm moving on."

Howard could not be reached for comment.

Estella Alexander, who left her post Friday as acting deputy executive director of the federally funded agency, also could not be reached for comment.

During the interview, Graziano, who took over as housing commissioner in the fall, ticked off a wide range of concerns about the Section 8 program -- from overall mismanagement and financial problems to poor housing inspections and a failure to provide families with rental subsidies.

"We've had complaints about landlords not getting checks, we've had complaints about the quality of units," he said. "Just really across-the-board concerns, when you look at it."

Graziano said he was also dissatisfied with the program's computer system, which has experienced a number of problems since early last year. He has told the company hired to overhaul the computer system to stop work until further notice.

The inspector general's office at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has drafted what sources describe as a critical audit of the city agency's Section 8 program. Graziano said he could not comment on the audit but did say that HUD officials' concerns "really parallel mine."

The new acting head of the Section 8 program is Housing Authority official Michael Kramer. He is a recent hire who until December had worked at the New York Housing Authority, where Graziano was general manager before coming to Baltimore.

Graziano said Alexander turned down offers to take other high-ranking jobs at the Housing Authority after he picked an outside candidate, former HUD official Deborah Vincent, to become the new deputy executive director.

Vincent, who served for 13 years as executive director of the Clearwater Housing Authority in Florida, was most recently deputy chief of staff for policy with HUD. She starts work tomorrow.

Overhauling the city's Section 8 program -- which provides federal subsidies to help low-income families rent housing -- has long been a goal of city business leaders and advocates for the poor.

In July, the Greater Baltimore Committee and President's Roundtable lambasted the Section 8 program in a report that listed 500 recommendations for improving efficiency in all areas of city government. That report called the Section 8 program "inefficient, inflexible and uncooperative."

Mark K. Joseph, chairman and chief executive officer of Municipal Mortgage & Equity LLC, who chaired the committee that reviewed the Section 8 program, said the program wasn't serving its clients.

"Our view was that there was a local lack of leadership in the program and it had to be changed," Joseph said during an interview. "The culture had no sense of service to the renter. It was very consumer-unfriendly."

Barbara Samuels, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, whose 1995 lawsuit against the city and HUD prompted a court settlement to counter the segregation of poor black families in public housing projects, said the ACLU has long had serious concerns about inefficiency in the Section 8 program.

Samuels said computer problems have caused delays in paying the rent of poor city residents. Such delays have caused city landlords to shy away from renting to Section 8 voucher recipients, she said.

"Having landlords not want to participate because they're not going to get paid in time is a serious problem and an unnecessary problem," Samuels said. "It's already a difficult job and if you do not have a well-run, well-managed program, you're severely handicapped."

Former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who left in December 1999 after the election of Mayor Martin O'Malley, defended the administration of the Section 8 program during his tenure.

"I recall at several points other public housing agencies with problems asking the HABC for technical assistance [with Section 8]," Henson said. "So it couldn't have been but so bad."

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