City housing chief at home in hot seat

Frequently a target of criticism, Croslan is confident in approach

Annapolis

July 22, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

After Patricia Holden Croslan took over the beleaguered Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis four years ago, she quickly drew praise from federal regulators and others for saving the agency from bankruptcy by cutting costs and laying off employees.

But Croslan, 55, has long been a controversial figure. And in recent months, critics have stepped up attacks on her for not doing enough to maintain the authority's properties.

This month, it was discovered that a $130,000 window replacement project had made it difficult for many residents to install air conditioners; when units were installed, it created a fire hazard.

Last week, the authority was forced to shut down a recreation center after a city building inspector found that roof leaks had allowed water into the electrical system, creating a potential fire hazard. The discovery prompted Mayor Ellen O. Moyer to write Croslan to complain about the "deplorable" conditions at city public housing.

"Why do we have ugly, boarded-up recreation centers?" Moyer asked in a recent interview. "Why do we have playgrounds that are no longer usable? Why aren't we using some of the money [in reserve] to develop tot-lots and playgrounds? Why do we insist that these projects look like ghettos? Why aren't there plans to develop neighborhood pride and spirit?

"Clearly there needs to be some redirection of priorities," she added.

Croslan, who as executive director is paid $100,901, appeared unfazed last week. As she strolled through two public housing neighborhoods, she brushed off the criticism.

"What I do is take abuse," she said with a smile. "And, I do it well."

Her secret?

"Having confidence in yourself."

Croslan's self-confidence has won fans who applaud her no-nonsense approach to managing public housing in the city, which, with 1,100 units, has more public housing per capita than anyplace else in the state.

It has also fueled criticism that she is more concerned with finances and federal report cards than the well-being of her 2,800 tenants, who live in some of the nation's oldest public housing .

Less than a year after taking the job, Croslan brought the Department of Housing and Urban Development's score of the agency -- rattled by an FBI investigation a decade earlier that landed a former director in prison -- from 46.75 (out of a possible 100) to 74.75. The next year, that score was 97.25.

"We were a troubled agency when she was hired," said Marita Carroll, a longtime housing authority board member. "We told her we hoped she would accept the responsibility of turning the agency around and we feel that she has done what we asked her to do."

But the road to an improved HUD score had costs.

After taking office in 1998, Croslan fired 40 of 100 employees -- people she said were mostly in do-nothing jobs -- for a savings of about $1 million a year. She also cut social and recreational activities that she says had low participation, and began evicting tenants convicted on drug charges or who didn't pay rent. And she ordered some residents to get rid of appliances such as air conditioners, deep freezers and washers and dryers -- creature comforts that she says overtaxed the electrical systems. In the meantime, she built up the authority's reserve fund; it stands at about $2 million.

Croslan said she "absolutely" changed the culture of the housing authority -- ending free rides and unfair practices such as jobs and homes for those who knew someone.

"Sometimes you need to do what you need to do to get the results," she said.

But some residents and community activists say Croslan has been insensitive to tenants' concerns.

When HUD began evaluating the physical condition of properties in the scoring process, the authority's score fell to 69.7 in 2000; in 2001 it rebounded somewhat to 80. In each year, the authority earned just more than half of the points possible in the physical condition category.

A HUD report released a year ago found substandard conditions at all 10 public housing neighborhoods in the city. And many of about 200 people who attended a NAACP-sponsored forum last year blasted Croslan for their living conditions. Residents described roach-infested apartments with leaking toilets and trashy grounds.

"When you are paying someone more than $100,000 you expect that person to not be an excuse-maker, but to find solutions," said Carl O. Snowden, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People member and former city alderman who now serves as special assistant to County Executive Janet S. Owens.

Moyer, who took office last year, agrees. In what was widely viewed as a move to oust Croslan, Moyer persuaded the General Assembly last spring to expand the authority's board from five to seven members.

The mayor maintained she was not trying to get rid of Croslan, but acknowledged she did want to influence change at the authority. This month, Moyer has written Croslan four times to demand explanations for conditions at some of the communities.

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