The champion of the new Bloomsbury Square public housing complex in Annapolis is a small woman with a big voice.
When critics said the $6.5 million waterfront project was too nice for poor people, Janet E. LaBella reassured her clients that their promised new homes would not be taken away.
When move-in was delayed repeatedly, she offered encouragement. Throughout, she fought for them.
But today, after spending hundreds of hours ensuring that the 51-unit complex would became a reality, LaBella leaves her post at the helm of the Anne Arundel County office of the Maryland Legal Aid Bureau.
"Oh my goodness, she was our rock," said Alice Johnson, president of the Bloomsbury Square Resident Council. "I am telling you the God's honest truth, I want to cry."
With 13 years in the job, LaBella is the longest-tenured of Legal Aid's local chiefs in Maryland. In that time, she has managed a $1 million budget and nine lawyers who deal with threatened evictions, neglected youngsters, domestic crises, bankruptcies, utility cutoffs and other issues.
Though she says the only time she worked as few as 35 hours a week was when she was on vacation, she wouldn't trade it for one billable minute at a ritzy law firm.
"I love my clients. I really get excited about housing issues and preserving housing opportunities for residents," she says. "My energy comes from my clients."
The Bloomsbury Square case claims a large space in LaBella's office, a corner of a former pizza parlor across the street from the U.S. Naval Academy.
The case has been only part of her labors. She has put or kept roofs over the heads of hundreds of people. Courtroom battles over evictions were a mainstay of the more than 8,300 people her office aided last year.
"Think of David and what he did to Goliath," says activist Robert Eades, a former public housing resident who credits LaBella with turning him into an advocate for his neighbors and energizing hundreds of other public housing residents, giving many of them a respect they'd never known.
LaBella credits her drive to her upbringing outside Boston, where her podiatrist father made house calls when necessary and her mother stressed compassion. Her husband of 20 years, Edward Allen, teaches law at the David A. Clarke School of Law in Washington, and also runs its housing clinic.
The fight over Bloomsbury Square was the high point of LaBella's work in Anne Arundel County, says Wilhelm H. Joseph Jr., executive director of the statewide nonprofit agency that oversees all Legal Aid offices.
The project involved the state building townhouses along College Creek for residents of the old Bloomsbury Square complex, which the Annapolis Housing Authority gave to the state for a parking lot.
Along the way, the project went $800,000 over budget. There were several move-in delays and officials with the state, developer and housing authority sniped at each other.
Joseph says LaBella's work on Bloomsbury Square was a high-energy blend of "patience, tolerance and hard-nosed lawyering" against the superior resources of state government and local agencies.
"She is the consummate Legal Aid advocate," he says. "She is so thoroughly prepared in her work, she is passionate in the execution of her duties, she is compassionate. She is congenial and supportive with colleagues. She is as focused as she can be on the desired outcome and determined to achieve the outcome."
LaBella is moving to the federal Legal Services Corp., where she will be working on the provision of legal service nationwide.