Baltimore's major subsidized housing program for the poor continues to fail to meet federal standards but has improved its record keeping and trimmed its administrative costs since a scathing audit in 2001 said the program was "barely functional."
The city housing authority sent out an upbeat news release last week promoting its success in reaching a "milestone" Nov. 10 when Bill Tamburrino, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development's local director of public housing programs, wrote a letter closing out some problems raised by the March 2001 audit. The city quoted part of Tamburrino's letter saying: "I am pleased with the progress you and your organization have made."
But when Tamburrino's office faxed The Sun a full copy of the letter, the document revealed what the city's news release left out: that the program still merits a "failing grade."
The city's program scored five points on a scale of 1 to 100 two years ago, and it now scores a 50 -- 10 points below the passing grade of 60 that the vast majority of Section 8 programs around the country meet, according to HUD officials.
"Because that score is 50 percent, an improved but still failing grade, the corrective action plan must be focused on accomplishing a passing score as soon as possible," wrote Tamburrino, who oversees federal public housing programs in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and West Virginia.
The federal Section 8 program, administered by the city's housing authority, pays most of the monthly rent bills for 10,788 families living in privately owned buildings and houses in Baltimore at a cost of about $75 million a year, according to city figures released in June.
In March 2001, the Office of the Inspector General of HUD issued a blistering report on the city's Section 8 program, saying it was "barely functional" and that it "continues to mismanage and waste scarce resources."
Among the numerous problems detailed in the report: many of the housing units were in poor shape and failed inspections; the city didn't have a close estimate of how many apartments were enrolled in its program; the city did not have a computerized record-keeping system; and the program paid too much money for its administration, while it had 16,000 applicants on a waiting list, some for as long as 10 years.
To help address these problems, the city has created a better system for re-inspecting failing housing units and is putting in place a computerized record-keeping system, according to HUD. It now knows how many apartments and rental houses are enrolled in its program, and is more efficient in its use of federal funds, city officials said.
A spokesman for the city's housing department, Melvin Edwards, said Friday that the city has enrolled another 2,000 families in the program in the last two years, while cutting back the program's staff from 126 to 85 to meet HUD requirements and providing more training for administrators.
The program has also disqualified more than 700 properties that weren't up to quality standards. To earn a passing grade from HUD, the city intends to do a better job of inspecting units, Edwards said. It also intends to reduce the rent subsidies for many units, he said, which exceed the market value in many cases.