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New London - Sue Shontell is in her office at the New London Housing Authority, fielding questions.
It's just before 8 a.m. and some of the 22 full-time workers are arriving to work. One is reading the newspaper, a necessary part of the job to keep track of any tenants who may be in trouble. Another is complaining that a pile of dirt and a backhoe have appeared outside the Thames River apartments and no one knows where they came from. The company hired to take down old playground equipment has returned to finish seeding the area.
A tenant is calling because the pipes in her apartment are humming. The sewer pipes are being flushed, she's told.
Shontell, appointed executive director of the New London Housing Authority last week after 14 months as acting director, takes the reins of an agency in transition.
Shontell succeeds Joseph A. Abrams, who resigned in the summer of 2009 amid accusations of fiscal mismanagement.
Shontell said she hesitated only briefly before taking the job.
"When I took over, I figured it couldn't get any worse,'' she said during an interview in the authority's office off Colman Street.
She said she watched the agency decline and knew she could fix it.
"The staff needed a chance to show that they could fix it,'' she said. "We do a good job for residents. ... I'm absolutely driven to help these people.''
A lively workplace
On this rainy Tuesday morning, Shontell is behind her desk signing time sheets and reviewing overtime requests.
The Ledge Light Health District has left a message asking how many state units the housing authority manages.
Bill Stetson of the Carabetta Organization is calling on the cell phone to coordinate moving tenants temporarily for a major overhaul of Briarcliff and Bates Woods.
Workers are poking their heads in her office to say hi. "Rage without focus is not a strategy" is written on a white board covering one wall. Some reach into a box of candy she keeps by the door.
"When you have no money, you have to do whatever you can for morale,'' she says with a hearty laugh that is tinged with the gruff edge of a smoker.
She said she tried to quit and was thinking about it last year just after being named acting executive director.
"My doctor told me not to quit,'' she said. "No lie. He said I had enough stresses in my life."
There's more laughter in the hallway. Someone has brought in a homemade Texas chocolate sheet cake, sprinkled with walnuts. Talk of diets, calories and exercise ensues.
"It's an adventure coming to work,'' said Jennifer Carrion, who manages the elderly housing and lives in Briarcliff. "We always kid Sue and say if we had a reality TV show, all our financial problems would be solved."
A week before, Roto-Rooter had to be called for a backup at one of the units in Briarcliff. A dead skunk was pulled out of the pipes. The same week, maintenance workers had to break through a wall to free a baby squirrel.
"Sometimes it's wildlife week,'' said Carrion.
This past summer a streaker rushed through the parking lot of 202 Colman St. elderly housing, where about half of the 130 efficiency and one-bedroom units are for the disabled.
"It was a meds thing,'' Shontell said.
Another day, Shontell opened the side door of the office for a cigarette break and a horse was standing on the other side of the parking lot.
"I had to rub my eyes,'' she said. The horse had gotten free from a farmhouse a couple of miles away.
Big issues to deal with
Despite the jovial atmosphere, running a housing authority is serious business. And the 49-year-old Shontell, who has worked here since 2003, knows it well. She manages the residences of 1,600 elderly and disabled people and members of working poor families, who live in 735 units of housing across the city.
She deals with those who get arrested and must be evicted, and tenants who don't pay their bills and lose utility service. Refrigerators break down. Toilets back up. Screen doors rip.
When Abrams left, the housing authority, which has been on HUD's list of troubled agencies since 1998, was being investigated for not properly administering about $900,000 in federal capital programs. A HUD auditor also found that the housing authority could not account for $91,000 in administrative fees. HUD recommended the housing authority hire an outside agency to run its day-to-day operations.
The authority, which manages 223 units of federal housing and 512 units of state housing, also owed about $2.8 million in unpaid water, sewer and utility bills and lawyers' fees. It owed money to the New London Police Department for extra patrols and coverage.
A still-pending class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of residents of Thames River alleges inhumane living conditions in the three low-income high-rise apartment buildings on Crystal Avenue.
In 14 months Shontell has managed to redirect $380,000 in federal stimulus money that was supposed to be used for playground equipment and parking lots to more critical needs like new hot-water heaters and upgraded elevators. She set up a payment plan with Northeast Utilities to pay down debt and recommended an internal controls policy - the first of its kind for the authority - that spells out guidelines for housing staff that will safeguard assets, verify the accuracy of accounting data and ensure all policies are in compliance with federal and state regulations.
Shontell also helped in the final negotiations with Carabetta for a $48 million deal to renovate and manage 302 moderate-income housing units at Bates Woods and Briarcliff. The housing authority is a limited liability partner in the deal, which grants Carabetta a 99-year ground lease for the land. The housing authority will retain ownership of the land and Carabetta will own the buildings and manage the grounds and the apartments.
Carabetta closed the deal on Bates Woods in July and has begun renovating the units off Jefferson Avenue. The housing authority received about $600,000 from that deal that is going toward paying off overdue water, sewer and utility bills. A similar agreement is expected to be signed within the next few weeks, turning over the Briarcliff units to Carabetta.
Lawyers for both sides in the lawsuit have agreed to talk about possible resolutions.
In August, HUD sent the authority a letter saying management had improved considerably, and left the decision of whether to hire an outside management company to the five-member board.
The board unanimously opted to keep its management and praised Shontell for addressing and fixing many of the agency's systemic problems.
Back in her hometown
Shontell graduated from New London High School in 1979. Her first job was as a cashier at the A&P grocery store on Broad Street, where her parents had met and also worked. Her mother, who is now 87, predated cash registers there. She would jot down the cost of grocery items on a brown bag and add up the numbers in her head.
In 1981, Shontell joined the Navy and went to air traffic control school. But she found she didn't like the isolation of the control tower. She preferred to be among people.
She stayed in the service for five years and left only because, in the early 1980s, opportunities for women were limited. She wanted to serve on an aircraft carrier but women were not allowed on ships. She remained in San Diego for 15 years and worked as a subcontractor for the Navy. She returned to the area 15 years ago, she says, because "I'm an only child and my parents were getting old."
She landed the job at the housing authority in 2003, after working at Pfizer Inc., the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, Analysis & Technology and Habitat for Humanity. She began as a clerk, because she needed a job, and worked her way up through the organization.
Margaret Reyes, a former member of the authority who was on the board when Shontell was hired, said Shontell has come a long way in seven years.
"She was learning, but she was very quick on her feet,'' said Reyes, who now heads the residents' association at the Riozzi Court complex. "Now she's very knowledgeable and very accessible."
She said Shontell is willing to listen to complaints and responds quickly.
"She's gotten respect from tenants because she's earned it. Of course, not everyone feels that way,'' she said. "But she's good. And if she continues to have an open policy, things will continue to improve."
Paula Royce, the purchasing and contract management specialist, said her boss is always only a phone call away.
"She's not a take-a-message person. She doesn't send calls to voice mail. She answers her phone,'' said Royce. "She will talk to anyone.''
Shontell's cell phone is on 24/7. Sometimes tenants can be verbally abusive, but that's usually when they are facing some kind of crisis.
"I understand someone who is angry. If I had a skunk in my house I'd be angry, too,'' she said. "I try to explain, we're getting there. We'll be over as soon as we can."
It's just after 9:30 a.m. when Carrion, the manager of elderly housing, interrupts Shontell to tell her a man who has been banned from 202 Colman St. is in the building.
"Hector's on the fifth floor. NLPD is there,'' she says of the man whose former girlfriend lives in the building. She said he's been abusive to residents and broken a door, so he is no longer welcome.
Shontell pockets her cell phone and stands.
"Let's go get him,'' she says.
Two police cruisers are parked outside the 11-story building. Four officers are in the fifth-floor hallway.
Shontell knocks on an apartment door.
"Health and welfare check,'' she says when no one answers. She lets herself in. No one is there. She knocks at another apartment door. Everyone seems to know Hector, but no one's seen him.
"He's here somewhere,'' she says. "We'll get him eventually."
Moderate-income (state), soon to be managed by Carabetta Organization
Bates Woods - 160 units on Boulder Drive, Buchanan Drive, Ledge Road and Jefferson Avenue, built 1955
Briarcliff - 142 units on Laurel Drive, Fern Street, Redden Avenue and Colman Street, built 1951.
Thames River - 124 units at three high-rise buildings on Crystal Avenue, built 1967.
Williams Park - 99 units for elderly and disabled at 127 Hempstead St., built 1969.
Elderly and disabled (state)
George Washington Carver Building - 130 units at 202 Colman St., built 1973.
Gordon Court - 38 units off Williams St., built 1964.
Riozzi Court - 42 units off Colman St., built 1964.