Dear Mayor Buckley,
You’re wrong. I believe you’ve led the city in the wrong direction in its ongoing legal fights over the Annapolis housing authority. The city is facing a lawsuit by the family of DaMon Fisher, whose family claims the city was partially liable for his death because it paused health and safety inspections of the housing authority apartments where he lived for eight years.
You accepted specious legal advice in this dispute and pointed a finger at the authority. You argued that it was responsible for the poor housing conditions that led to Fisher’s death and that it should be placed in receivership if necessary to fix the situation. That ignored the claim at the center of this lawsuit: By allowing inspections at the authority’s rental units to stop, the city failed to meet its responsibility to ensure safe living conditions. The authority, also a defendant in the family’s lawsuit, has turned this strategy back on you, asking a federal judge to hold the city solely liable for any damages.
You’ve already lost this argument. The city and the housing authority settled a lawsuit filed by residents on the exact same reasoning almost two years ago.
Not only that, asking the judge to shift blame and put the authority into receivership is likely to doom efforts to renovate two authority properties, Eastport Terrace and Harbour House. No smart investors will consider this just a squabble to be dismissed under the heading of business as usual.
I’ve heard your reasoning.
“I think the city is being drawn into a lawsuit that we don’t believe we should be part of,” you told me. “We know that the property is federal property and we don’t understand why the city has been the focal point and not the federal government.”
I get it. No one likes to be sued, and you don’t fork over taxpayers’ money for a problem that predates your election as mayor.
So let me say there is a way forward. It starts with settling a lawsuit you’re going to lose anyway, and limiting the damage of this dispute and future ones. Here’s a three-part plan for getting Annapolis out of this dilemma.
Let’s go back to the start of this story.
The mayor and City Council created the Housing Authority of the City of Annapolis in the late 1930s. The idea was to address the crisis of housing conditions in many city neighborhoods, particularly where its Black residents lived around the old brickyard and rail line leading into the city.
This was part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, reflecting a belief that government could solve economic problems and not just be a neutral observer. Annapolis was the first city in Maryland to create a housing authority, and then a year later become one of the first to get a federal loan to build what was eventually called College Creek Terrace. It accepted $400,000 in federal money — roughly $8.5 million today — and kicked in another 20% of the total cost.
Somewhere along the way, City Hall not only abandoned its ownership of the housing authority, but the relationship between leaders of the two entities turned hostile. As Annapolis became an increasingly prosperous and expensive place to live, city leaders often seemed to want to forget the poorest residents.
Just as bad, housing authority leaders wasted a decade ignoring the inevitable: The federal government is moving away from paying for public housing. By 2017, when Beverly Wilbourn became its fifth executive director in five years, the authority was under scrutiny for mismanagement and was ranked by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as one of the worst-run housing agencies in the country.
Wilbourn, using methods that included the aggressive pursuit of evictions for unpaid rent, turned the finances around enough to start the first major redevelopment of an authority-owned property in years. She drew on state and local funding, tax credits and private money.
In terms of actually helping the authority through its problems, the city has been an absentee partner. There is in-kind support, such as police service, but that’s about it. The mayor appoints authority board members and then washes his or her hands of the whole enterprise. About half of the funding comes from HUD, down from 75% a decade ago, and the rest from rent and grants.
“There has not been, historically, in the city of Annapolis, consistent support from the local municipality, the city, to support its affordable housing provider,” said Melissa Maddox Evans, the authority’s executive director for the past three years.
This has allowed deplorable conditions to exist, lawsuits to be filed and many Annapolis residents to believe that this is somebody else’s problem. Like you, Mr. Mayor, many city taxpayers are confused about why they’re being dragged into this.
It’s not going to go away. The city cannot ignore its own creation and history. There will be more lawsuits ahead until you resolve the underlying situation.
So, here is my three-part solution.
First, settle the lawsuit.
It doesn’t really matter that city inspections of rental properties were extended to housing authority properties for the first time under your predecessor. It doesn’t matter why they were paused or why it took your administration a year to restart them. State law requires them and there were plenty of warnings this was an invitation for lawsuits. The city ignored this for years.
The Fisher family still has to prove his death from pulmonary illness in 2020 was related to mold and other problems in his apartments. The consequences of such inspections — that flunking housing authority properties on health and safety issues would have created a crisis of displacing residents — doesn’t matter in this dispute. The family is suing the authority as well, and it’s just as likely to settle eventually.
The sooner you and Evans get there, the cheaper for everyone.
Second, merge with the county.
Both the Annapolis housing authority and the Housing Commission of Anne Arundel County were set up by local governments to address the same issues, 30 years apart. Because generations of families have called the city authority’s communities home, opposition to this idea is strong in Annapolis.
Yet even as the Annapolis housing authority descended into financial chaos, the county commission earned top management and leadership scores from HUD. Today, it remains a much stronger organization, in part because of its mix of housing. It already helps operate the housing voucher program in Annapolis.
A combined agency would be able to move faster toward renewal of the city’s public housing and maybe even rescue the funding process for the redevelopment of Eastport Terrace and Harbour House. The authority and the city have partnered in a federal competition for this money, and lawsuits among the partners cripple the bid.
Finally, seize the opportunity.
The county created Arundel Community Development Services as a private nonprofit to manage affordable housing initiatives in 1993. The combined housing authority could work with ACDS to bring new energy to finding solutions for workforce housing in Annapolis.
Opponents of creating more workforce housing — places where people who work as teachers and police officers might live — by relaxing zoning rules are right in saying the city is too small to resolve this problem on its own. But Annapolis must add this type of housing to remain a vibrant city rather than a retirement home for rich people with boats. There is strength in a unified approach that crosses the city-county line.
Gov. Wes Moore has made expanding affordable housing in Maryland a priority for his administration. Take these three steps, Mr. Mayor, and you could put Annapolis in place to take advantage of that focus.
But to do it, you have to get past the current mess.
You have about three years left in office. Don’t spend it defending bad legal reasoning. Spend it on fixing problems.