Early one morning last April, D.C. housing director Robert L. Moore groggily answered an insistent knock at his front door to find 12 of his department's security guards standing in the dark outside.
Over the next four hours in his living room, Moore listened with amazement as many of the guards confessed to regularly smoking marijuana on the job, turning their heads as thieves made off with city property, and generally "goofing off" for years.
To Moore, who only three months before had left his job as Houston's city housing director, it was but one of many eye-opening experiences he has had as the District of Columbia's new housing chief.
Among other things, he said:
The department's bungling of city and federally-financed housing construction projects for the poor had forced some contractors into bankruptcy, with the result that badly needed housing units remained uncompleted.
The department had overspent its allotment of federal housing funds by $19 million and "misspent" another $170 million in federal funds over the years.
The department had never stocked spare parts. One result was that when the heating systems in public housing projects broke down in mid-winter, it often took days to get the parts needed to repair them.
"I didn't know that much" about the condition of the city's housing department before taking the job, Moore said in an interview last week with reporters and editors of The Washington Post. If he had, he said, "I probably would have stayed in Houston. Seriously."
In the wide-ranging two-hour discussion, Moore not only discussed the problems he inherited, but predicted that the city would face some serious new problems in the weeks just ahead.
Moore predicted, for example, that many landlords in impoverished Southeast Washington will "walk away" from their apartment buildings later this year rather than pay the soaring utility bills caused by higher oil prices.
The city, he said, will be forced to take over responsibility for maintaining the abandoned buildings.
Moore blamed much of the department's poor record on an attitude of indifference that he said filtered down from Mayor Walter E. Washington and his former housing chief, Lorenzo W. Jacobs, Jr. To counteract that, he said, he has worked to instill an element of fear in department employes.
Typical of the poor planning and low morale Moore said he encountered in taking over the department was the security force. When the guards visited him at his home shortly after midnight last April, they complained that their flashlights didn't work and that their spray cans of Mace were so old that the chemical was no longer effective.
"They'd spray that stuff in a room with 30 or 40 people in it to get them to leave and they'd just laugh at them," Moore said.
The walkie-talkies used by the guards for emergency situations were frequently useless, too, he said, because the guards shared the same radio frequency with the housing department's busy maintenance section.
"Get off," Moore quoted one female maintenance dispatcher as telling a security guard when he attempted to use the radio to call for assistance in making an arrest. "We've got a backed-up toilet."
"Three or four" guards have been fired since the April meeting because of the revelations, Moore said.
In addition, Moore revelaled that a department security guard was arrested by District police two months ago and charged with possessing $200,000 worth of the drug PCP.
Moore subsequently relieved the security department chief of his duties because he never suspended the arrested guard or informed Moore of the arrest. A District police officer is now supervising the housing department security force, Moore said.
The District's department of housing and community development was created in 1975, bringing under one director for the first time all of the city's urban renewal and public housing responsibilities. The department gets millions of dollars from the federal government each year, which it uses to maintain public housing, provide rent subsidies, fund loan and grant programs for both low and middle-income families, and, in general, to spur the revitalization of communities torn by riots in 1968.
The department has about 1,300 employees.
Moore complained that when he first took over, there was little or no accurate financial accounting of how the department spent its money. "Figures just didn't add up," he said. "It took six months to get a report done. So I started doing some of the figures myself."
He found that the city had overspent its federal allocation for public housing by $19 million. Moore says it looks as if the city will have to pay back at least $10 million to settle the dispute.
In addition, Moore charged that the city "misspent" $170 million in public housing funds given to it by the federal government over the past four years. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now balking at giving the city any more funds unless it can guarantee new monies will be spent more effectively.
"There is no reason for the city to be in the situation it's in," Moore said.
Moore said he also discovered his department had a history of bungling construction projects.
For example, in the Bates Street area just off North Capitol Street, developers were given four-year-old work plans by the city that were virtually useless, he said. When the developers of the Wiley Court project in the H Street NE area began to construct new public housing units, workmen's shovels unearthed fuel tanks buried in the ground that no one in the city housing department had told them about, delaying the project for months, and pushing costs higher, Moore said. The developers also poured part of the project's concrete foundation in the wrong place because the city had provided wrong information about the property's boundaries, he said.
Moore said other examples of poor management in the past included the fact that the department had $1.5 million in uncollected back rent in January, and many gas lines were so old that gas leaks were reported daily in some projects.
Moore defended his department however, against accusations by City Council member Willie J. Hardy (D-Ward 7) chairman of the Council's housing committee, that the new administration is doing nothing about the problem of displacement of the poor by middle class urban pioneers buying up old inner city homes.
"To say that the city does nothing for displacement is just not true," Moore said. "A lot of people just don't give us credit."
He said there are counseling programs, projects to develop solar energy, day care projects, programs for senior citizens and the programs for unemployed -- all dealing with the side effects of displacement.
"The government is going to have to be the landlord (of the poor). It always has been," Moore said. "There's never been enough housing for poor people. The problem is now there are very few ways to become un-poor."