A survivor, Graziano draws mixed reviews after nearly 11 years as housing chief

City's longest-serving housing commissioner under third mayor

  • City housing commissioner Paul T. Graziano stands in front of the Barclay Community Revitalization project.
City housing commissioner Paul T. Graziano stands in front… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
August 06, 2011|By Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

Paul T. Graziano looked for all the world like a short-timer. Just weeks into his new job as Baltimore's housing commissioner, he was arrested at a Fells Point bar after a drunken tirade laced with anti-gay slurs.

That was more than 10 years ago. He's still in the job.

Now on his third mayor, he has outlasted three police commissioners and numerous agency heads to become the city's longest-serving housing chief. It's a powerful perch. He oversees not only public housing, but everything from the rebirth of onetime slums such as the Uplands apartments in West Baltimore to code enforcement complaints in wealthy areas like Roland Park.

While the Fells Point episode has faded from public consciousness, Graziano has been unable to shake the rap that he lacks the big ideas Baltimore needs to stem population loss, tackle widespread decay and strengthen neighborhoods. "Vision deficit" was the biting phrase used in a transition report prepared for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake when she took office last year.

Graziano's agency has figured into the mayoral campaign for its role in developing Rawlings-Blake's plan to eliminate blight, Vacants to Value — a program that the mayor's challengers say will not make a dent in the city's mountain of 30,000 abandoned properties.

Meanwhile, his agency faces growing political pressure to pay nearly $12 million in court judgments awarded to public housing residents in lead-paint poisoning cases. After insisting repeatedly that the housing authority could not afford to pay, he said recently, "It's something that's got to be resolved."

Graziano, 58, is a bureaucratic survivor whose staying power has elicited a mix of curiosity, dismay and admiration in Baltimore's political and community development circles.

One obvious explanation is that three mayors have wanted him there. But that glosses over a more complicated reality. In the years since the Fells Point incident, he has dodged two political bullets — both previously unreported — when first Martin O'Malley and later Sheila Dixon weighed replacing him, according to interviews.

In what may serve as a reminder of the job's political realities, Graziano said in an interview that he overcame his misgivings and promoted then-Mayor Dixon's boyfriend in 2007 to a key land disposition post because she asked him to.

Dixon vehemently denies this.

Another reason for his longevity, even according to his critics, is that he seemingly gets the job done. Those who fault his performance nonetheless often praise his intellect, diligence and knowledge of arcane federal regulations.

Graziano has won plaudits for employing capable deputies, and many say he has brought needed stability to the troubled public housing agency, which serves 25,000 low-income families.

"There's no one big thing to point to and go, 'Oh, this is an outrage,'" said Tracy Gosson, former director of Live Baltimore, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. "But at the same time, there is not much we can point to and go, 'Home run.'"

To be sure, Graziano has supporters, from City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young to several community development leaders who say he helped them with various projects. While Rawlings-Blake has not pledged to retain him if she wins a four-year term, she praised his performance.

"I'm confident in the work he's doing," the mayor said, adding that she saw no reason to think that would not continue. In a shot at the commissioner's detractors, she said, "I appreciate criticism that at least acknowledges the herculean task he has coming in the door and the progress he's made."

Graziano, a broad-shouldered man with a bushy gray mustache, rejects the notion that he lacks vision. But he says he needs to do a better job of communicating his ideas and achievements and notes that each mayor gets to set the priorities for his agency.

That executive prerogative is evident in shifting efforts to address the vacancy problem. O'Malley launched Project 5000 to buy and sell off 5,000 vacant structures. Dixon changed tack, pushing for a land bank outside city government as a way of improving efficiency. Rawlings-Blake shelved the land bank idea, opting instead to streamline existing city processes under Vacants to Value, which she outlined July 28 to officials at the White House.

While critics dismiss Vacants to Value as a Project 5000 retread, Graziano says the new program is far more focused on offloading properties the city owns. He describes the three mayoral initiatives as part of a continuum.

"I don't see it as, I'm over here and then I'm over here and then I'm over here," he said. "I see it as an evolution of thought."

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