Housing director abruptly resigns

Board scrambles to fill position

Sewell is third leader in 3 years

Officials hope to continue his momentum

April 17, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

Annapolis Housing Authority Director Harry D. Sewell had just finished another meeting with the city's mayor and his boss Wednesday, and the mood appeared upbeat.

In less than a year on the job, Sewell had done much to financially boost the agency and fix boarded-up properties, giving city officials hope for improving some of the oldest public housing projects in Maryland, if not the country.

But the landscape appears much less certain on the heels of Sewell's abrupt resignation last week. Sewell withheld telling Mayor Ellen O. Moyer or Trudy McFall, chairwoman of the board of commissioners that oversees the housing authority, during the meeting that he would step down by the end of this week.

Just before departing, he left his resignation letter with McFall, tucked in with a pile of papers that discussed the housing authority's plans and its 1,104 units.

Moyer and McFall, who hadn't sensed any discord with Sewell, were baffled by the announcement.

"I was surprised a bit, one would say," Moyer said.

"I'm so disappointed. ... We've been on a good roll," said McFall, who didn't discover Sewell's resignation until Wednesday night.

Now city officials are left to pick up the pieces after the third departure of a housing authority director in three years. More than 2,000 people live in Annapolis public housing, and some people familiar with the system say that number could be twice as high.

"The Annapolis Housing Authority is at a crossroads," said Carl O. Snowden, a former city alderman and current aide to County Executive Janet S. Owens. "[Sewell's] sudden departure leaves the housing authority up in the air, with no stable leadership."

The board of commissioners met two hours Friday to begin selecting an acting director. McFall said they hope to reach an agreement tomorrow.

Messages left for Sewell at his office went unreturned Friday. Officials said he is expected to take a job in private industry. Before coming to Annapolis, he served as executive director of the Wilmington, Del., housing authority and previously helped oversee public housing in New Orleans.

Sewell replaced Clyde Caldwell, who was fired by the city's housing authority board in January 2004 after less than a year on the job over differences in management and communication style.

Caldwell's predecessor was P. Holden Croslan, who in her five years as housing authority chief made waves by firing nearly half of the agency's staff and evicting problem tenants. She and the board reached a mutual agreement that she resign in May 2003.

At the time, the agency was ranked as a high performer by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

City officials hope that whoever succeeds Sewell can capitalize on the momentum he created after being hired in May. The Annapolis Housing Authority closed out 2004 with a deficit, but Sewell helped to balance the budget, McFall said.

Sewell hired more on-site managers for the city's 10 public housing developments, and he encouraged more tenants to take a stake in patrolling and managing the properties they lived in, officials said.

One of his latest proposals, which he presented Wednesday to Moyer, involved increasing the participation of children who live in the housing units in the city's recreation and parks programs, Moyer and McFall said.

"The direction he set, we hope it continues," Moyer said.

Sewell was working on a five-year plan for the agency to set admission and occupancy standards, and the board of commissioners implemented them Friday, McFall said.

But many challenges await the new director.

One involves completing about $7 million in physical improvements that have begun on two community centers, the projects' laundry rooms, and the units' yards and exteriors.

"If the commissioners had a common frustration, it would be that," McFall said.

Snowden said new financial mandates placed on public housing by the Bush administration will only place additional strain on a job that already demands "a thick skin."

Federal officials are asking that each public housing property become self-sufficient. In the past, a housing authority got a lump sum of money to dole out as it saw fit among its many properties. Now this money will be dispersed to individual properties, with no "intermingling" allowed, McFall said. "Properties in the worst condition will have fewer tenants and less income, and that will put more stress on those individual communities."

In the face of federal budget cuts and with scant hope that funds will come from state or local governments, Snowden said housing authorities will be "expected to do much more with less."

The concern among residents, Snowden said, is that properties may need to be sold to compensate for funding shortcomings.

"It doesn't take a genius -- if you don't have clientele who can pay," he said. That leaves the housing authority one alternative: "sell units."

McFall said the commissioners do not intend to sell any properties, but she acknowledged that the decline of federal funding will put more pressure on the new director to maintain the most dilapidated properties.

"We are entering very difficult times," McFall said. "It will make things more complicated."

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