HUD wants change at top

Bywater complex to get repairs when manager is ousted

February 14, 2007|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,Sun reporter

The federal government is attempting to oust the management agency of Bywater Mutual Homes Inc., saying it has neglected the Annapolis public housing community.

Residents and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have agreed to upgrade and repair the 35-year-old townhouse complex - on HUD's condition that the Whetstone Co. step aside as the manager. Whetstone, which is fighting the terms of the agreement, is scheduled to meet with the two sides Friday at HUD headquarters in Washington.

In interviews, HUD officials said requiring the removal was best for residents, while a Whetstone representative denounced the deal as bureaucratic blackmail. If Whetstone is replaced, the residential board would pick a new management agent.

"We're acting in the best interests of the tenants and their safety in approving the improvements," said Maria Bynum, a HUD spokeswoman based in the Philadelphia regional office. "But Whetstone is not acceptable to HUD, and we have the authority to request that the management company be changed. We are carrying out HUD's mission, since [the property] has fallen into disrepair, and we are looking forward to the renovations."

Changes would include removing the steel bars from Bywater windows.

This is the second time in two years that HUD has pressed to remove Whetstone. In 2005, it acted to foreclose on the publicly assisted housing community, citing failed inspections, mortgage default and disrepair in the units built in an experimental module style. The effort was stalled by protests from lawmakers and alarmed residents, who defended Whetstone's record of property management since 1983.

The Whetsone Co. manages several other federal housing properties in Maryland and Virginia. At Bywater Homes, near Forest Drive, HUD subsidizes rents in the nonprofit cooperative, which is controlled by residents.

Bruce C. Bereano, a lobbyist who represents Whetstone, said the Rockville-based company retains the allegiance of the residential board.

"This [ouster] action they're proposing is extreme. HUD has ignored and thumbed their nose at all the officials who have written to them," Bereano said. "This is a dictatorial effort to break the power and security of residents."

The board of director's president, Deniece Fisher, declined to comment for this article.

But in a letter to Whetstone dated Nov. 8, Fisher stated the residents would abide by the HUD request. "It appears that the Board of Directors no longer has any choice in this matter ... although the Board may disagree with HUD's demand for a change of management agents at this time."

Carl Snowden, director of the civil rights office for the state attorney general, formerly represented the district as an Annapolis alderman. He said yesterday that current conditions pose no danger to the public health or safety to Bywater residents.

From his conversations with residents, he said, he feels that "HUD is trying to force its will, contrary to what Bywater wants."

Wayne Taylor, a Bywater resident of nearly seven years who recently stepped down as a city alderman, also defended Whetstone, and said his neighbors worked hard to fend off foreclosure, only to be faced with this ultimatum. Comparing the more than 225 townhouses to military-style housing with million-dollar homes nearby, he said, "We need affordable housing."

"Whetstone has never failed to respond to any complaint and I am surprised at this [situation]," Taylor said. "The outcome should be the residents get to keep the management they want. If the residents do not see a need to replace the company, it seems unusual HUD would take such a drastic step rather than work with the residents to create a win-win situation."

Taylor suggested another agenda may be at work: "If a developer got hold of that, that's an extremely nice piece of property."

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