A D.C. Superior Court judge yesterday tapped the executive director of Seattle's public housing authority to be the receiver in charge of rescuing the District's beleaguered housing department.
Judge Steffen W. Graae gave broad powers to David I. Gilmore, 51, an outspoken and sometimes controversial figure with a reputation as a tough manager and a history of revitalizing distressed public housing agencies in Boston and San Francisco.
Graae also denied the District's motion asking him to reconsider his Aug. 18 receivership ruling. The city had claimed in court papers that when Graae ordered Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly to surrender control of the housing department to a receiver, he failed to consider improvements at the agency under a partnership between the mayor's office and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
But in his order yesterday, Graae wrote, "The court heard and considered these points, but ultimately found them unpersuasive, given that the partnership fails to address the underlying problems of structure and governance" at the housing agency.
A spokeswoman for the District's office of corporation counsel said attorneys for the city yesterday filed an appeal of Graae's order with the D.C. Court of Appeals and likely will seek a stay soon to block him from implementing the receivership while the appeal is heard. Such a move could delay Gilmore's appointment -- scheduled to begin Nov. 1 -- by months or years.
When a Massachusetts Superior Court judge ordered the Boston Housing Authority into receivership in 1979, the state's highest court upheld his ruling seven months later and the receiver's appointment did not take effect until then.
Housing specialists speculated that by naming a public housing trouble-shooter with Gilmore's credentials, Graae hopes to show the D.C. Court of Appeals that receivership would be the best option for improving the living conditions of the 30,000 people who reside in 60 public housing developments and 317 smaller sites in the District.
"He is one of the three or four premier housing directors in the country today," said Robert E. McKay, director of housing and homelessness for the Child Welfare League of America and an associate of Gilmore's for more than 20 years. "His strengths are putting strong management controls in place and tenant involvement."
Other candidates discussed for the receivership position included Vince Lane, executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority, and Harry Spence, who was the court-appointed receiver of the Boston Housing Authority for four years and now serves as receiver for the city of Chelsea, Mass.
Gilmore was hired by Spence in Boston and stayed on after Spence departed.
Gilmore, a social worker, served as special deputy for operations and then as deputy administrator at the Boston Housing Authority from 1980 to 1989, where he helped revamp the agency. It came out of receivership in 1990.
He then became executive director of the San Francisco Housing Authority, and during his four-year tenure there, the agency was removed from HUD's list of "troubled" housing departments. Within three years, he had reduced the authority's vacancy rate from about 10 percent to less than 2 percent, doubled the maintenance staff and restored the department's financial health after it had operated in the red for years.
But when a new mayor was swept into office in the 1991 elections, Gilmore's relationship with City Hall grew hostile, and he took on his present job in Seattle.
"David Gilmore has a Peace Corps heart with linebacker eyes," said former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos, who hired him for the housing authority job. Agnos now serves as HUD's regional representative for California.
Gilmore's career has not been without controversy.
A 1992 HUD audit of the San Francisco Housing Authority criticized Gilmore for spending $53,000 in federal funds over two years for what it called "unallowable entertainment." About $1,800 of the money had gone to pay for meals at expensive restaurants. At the time, Gilmore said the meals with politicians were "part of the cost of doing business."
Most of the spending in question was for such things as hot dogs and baseball mitts for public housing youths who were participating in a baseball program in cooperation with the San Francisco Giants.
Gilmore also came under fire when HUD determined that the San Francisco housing authority artificially reduced its vacancy-rate statistics by taking newly leased units off the vacancy rolls, even if the units were still empty, vandalized or not yet habitable. HUD also said that some of the authority's reporting practices were not reliable.
Nonetheless, Gilmore, who describes himself as a public housing "junkie," has earned a reputation as a valuable specialist in turning around housing authorities at a time when an increasing number of them are experiencing problems.
In an interview yesterday, Gilmore said he hopes to replicate in the District the approach he took in San Francisco. During his first six months in office there, he conducted an in-depth analysis of the authority's operations and put together a plan that contained some 75 objectives and more than 300 tasks.
"Clearly, the emphasis was on resident services, such as maintenance, vacancy-unit turnaround and security," Gilmore said. "That's the primary issue, as far as I am concerned."
Gilmore said he plans to decentralize operations at the D.C. Department of Public and Assisted Housing to improve the delivery of services.
"Public housing is a field operation; the decision-making should be made where the rubber meets the road," he said. "Otherwise, services don't get delivered as efficiently as they should, and they cost more."
Housing specialists said that since most of the District's public housing stock is low-rise, garden-style developments, it should be easier to turn around the department than those in other large cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, where most public housing complexes are high-rises.
Local housing activists said they were pleased with Gilmore's appointment.
"All indications tell me his is a wise choice, because I've heard he is a doer and does not like to get caught up in the politics of who likes who or who knows who," said Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, which was involved in a class-action lawsuit that lead to the receivership ruling. The suit was filed on behalf of families on the waiting list for public housing.
In appointing Gilmore, Graae gave him complete authority over the department's operations, including its finances, personnel decisions and labor contracts. He will have to report his major actions to the judge every six months.