When Michael H. Kramer took over the city's Section 8 rent subsidy program for the poor in March he became head of a "barely functional" bureaucracy that had all but ground to a halt from years of waste and neglect.
Thousands of people were waiting for housing aid, but officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Kramer found that about 2,300 rental assistance vouchers -- more than 25 percent of the city's allotment -- were available and not being used.
Now it's Kramer's job to fix the program to make sure people who need help get it. Investigators with HUD's Office of Inspector General gave him a roadmap for change last spring when they a issued a scathing audit, labeling the program "barely functional."
They're demanding that he pull the agency into shape by next year or risk having it taken over by the federal government.
"Our goal is to make sure those needy families are serviced, and if they can't do it then we'll find someone who can," said Daniel G. Temme, HUD's district inspector general for audits, whose team conducted the blistering study of the Baltimore Section 8 program.
Sitting in his attic office at 300 Cathedral St., Kramer, 48, a former director of operations services for the New York City Housing Authority, says he is up to the task -- even as he acknowledges that he must reverse a decade of mismanagement.
"We feel it's doable," he said. "To clean up the mess will take until June 2003. That is a timely response by any industry standard."
Kramer, who began his career in public housing in 1973 by mowing lawns at New York City housing projects, was brought to Baltimore by Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, also a veteran of New York.
Kramer's top priority is reducing Baltimore's waiting list of housing-aid applicants. He said he believes that more than half of the 15,000 people on the list are ineligible for housing aid (people with criminal records may not receive such assistance) or have found other housing in the years since they first asked for help from the city.
About 9,000 city residents receive Section 8 housing assistance.
The agency recently began calling in every person on the waiting list to get a realistic picture of the housing need. The agency has sent out self-addressed, stamped postcards asking people on the waiting list to respond if they still need help. It also has contacted housing advocacy groups to put out the word.
"We want to make sure everyone on the list knows about it and responds," Kramer said.
To get eligible people into homes, he has increased the number of employees handling property rentals. For years, one person was responsible for administering that part of the program, dealing with applicants and landlords. Now there are 13, who will act as case agents helping people get into homes and making sure the housing is in good condition.
Agency records show that 49 new leases were signed in July, and since that time the number has increased. Last month, 261 new leases were signed. Kramer said he wants to see 300 leases signed each month.
The third prong of his attack is restoring landlord confidence in the agency. For years, landlords were not paid on time because of poor recordkeeping and computer problems.
As a result, few landlords want to participate in the program. Kramer is trying to woo them back by promising to correct the shortcomings of the past. Last month, the agency paid 99 percent of participating landlords on time, compared with 85 percent in April, Kramer said.
He also has stepped up property inspections -- even visiting a few sites himself -- to ensure that homes are safe and clean. The HUD audit found that many of the units were substandard. Auditors conducted a sample inspection of 37 units and failed 35 of them because they were unsanitary, contaminated with lead paint or structurally unsound.
"We want the tenants to rent, but we don't want to rent to them in a slum," Kramer said.
Many of the problems were generally known about for years, but the severity of the situation came to light last spring. Graziano fired two top Section 8 managers in March, a few months after assuming his post as housing commissioner, and replaced them with Kramer.
Overhauling the city's Section 8 program has long been a goal of city business leaders and advocates for the poor. In July 2000, 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."
Kramer recognizes that he faces an uphill battle.
He has come into an office so steeped in inefficiency that employees sometimes recorded 3,000 hours of overtime in a month -- and no one questioned it. A couple of employees made double and triple their salaries in overtime, he said. Overtime is now down to about 150 hours a month, he said.
"It's been a real challenge," Kramer said, but "there's a lot of knowledgeable folks already employed with the agency, and we are going to turn it around."
He noted mending the program's administration might be the easiest part.
"An administrative mess can be fixed," he said. "It's restoring the credibility of the program that's more difficult."