Home again in Howard

New Housing Director Stacy Spann took a circuitous route in his return to the county

December 31, 2006|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN REPORTER

The trip from public housing at Guilford Gardens to tony Maple Lawn, Maryland is a short one across a small corner of southern Howard County, but Stacy Spann's journey included detours in Georgia, New York, Boston and Baltimore.

The incoming county housing director, whose second child, Sydney, was born late on the night that his new job was announced Dec. 12, is an enthusiastic advocate for Howard County - both the poor and rich parts.

"I'm a testament to the fact that people of all income levels live here," Spann, 33, said in an interview.

He sees an important part of his new job - officially to begin Jan. 15 - as making sure that residents realize the importance of ensuring that all kinds of people can find affordable places to live in the county.

Some high-income communities in the United States are enclaves for the wealthy, Spann acknowledged, but he believes that should be avoided.

"I'm not sure of a place in this country where that works well," he said.

As a young, ambitious family man with roots in the county, Spann represents a high-profile infusion of new blood in county government brought by Ken Ulman, the newly elected 32-year-old Democratic executive.

After 16 years of leadership from older county executives who had long careers as civil servants - Charles I. Ecker, a Republican, and James N. Robey, a Democrat - Ulman is hiring people like Spann for key posts in his administration. They range from staff director Aaron Greenfield to Spann and new technology czar Ira Levy. Tom Carbo, 47, a veteran county government attorney and zoning expert, is the new deputy county housing director, replacing Neil Gaffney.

Spann replaces Leonard S. Vaughan, 66, a respected housing official who served through the Ecker and Robey administrations.

"I'm really excited about creating a team in this administration that is excited by ideas and by solving challenges," Ulman said. "I see him [Spann] as an example of that."

Ulman said he was looking for someone with "a creative spark" and the commitment to improve housing to carry that through.

It is a hefty challenge.

Home prices have soared over the past six years, forcing the county, under Vaughan's leadership, to move away from programs that sought to sprinkle lower-priced homes for people with limited incomes amid more expensive ones. High taxes and amenity fees have made those kinds of deals virtually unfeasible, builders say.

But going back to an older model by concentrating subsidized apartments in one building has stirred resistance from fearful residents, especially in western Ellicott City.

No quick answers

Spann said he has no instant answers, but those who know him say he is well-equipped in experience and outlook to take on the challenge.

"He's a person who has a very kind heart," said Trevoir D. Gregg, a Morehouse College friend who works on Wall Street. "He's fantastic to be around" and bright.

Dierdre Coyle, senior vice president of the Initiative for a Competitive City near Boston, said Spann worked there for more than two years and made an impression. She described him as "highly energetic," a "team builder" who "took the initiative" and had "entrepreneurial energy."

"He was driven, but driven in all the good that that implies," she said. "He wanted to make a difference. Not only did he have a great business head, he had a passion for the work."

Former Baltimore planning director Otis Rolley III, now Baltimore mayor-to-be Sheila Dixon's chief of staff, also worked with Spann, who was an assistant Baltimore housing commissioner before taking the Howard job.

"He has a unique ability in dealing with developers to cut through the crap and deal with the bottom line," Rolley said. "If the numbers didn't add up for the city of Baltimore, the project didn't move."

Rolley also was struck by Spann's drive.

"It's what I call kind of a righteous ambition. He's very much driven, wanting to do the right thing."

Born and raised in Alabama as one of four children of a single mother, Spann always was an academic standout who loved education and reading - qualities that left him isolated socially from his African-American peers and his often all-white classmates.

"I was by myself a lot," he said.

Moving with his family to Columbia at age 14 to join an aunt put him into a different world.

"All these opportunities were laid open," he said. "It was a breath of fresh air. People were very smart and progressive, and you were not ostracized. [Columbia] was so organized. It was absolutely gorgeous to me when I first laid eyes on it."

Spann flourished at Hammond High School, was active in student government and participated in regional organizations - which is how he first met a smart, attractive girl named Shannon, who went to Woodlawn High in Baltimore County. They kept in touch.

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