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Richard Roberts, a youthful former special assistant to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was tapped Friday to fill the vacancy at the top of the city's troubled housing agency.

Roberts, a former key aide to City Hall policy guru Richard Schwartz is due to take over the reins at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development later this month. Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, the current HPD commissioner, will assume the top job at the city's welfare agency on February 18.

A 32-year-old Yale Law School graduate and former vice-president of the Edison Project, a conservative educational organization, Roberts will be one of a few African-American commissioners in the Giuliani administration.

In 1994 and 1995, Roberts guided the city's effort to create a public-private partnership to foster retail and residential development in poor neighborhoods. A year ago, he left the City Hall job to become a vice-president in the community relations department of Mount Sinai Hospital.

Ironically, Roberts' tenure at City Hall coincided with a reported attempt to dismantle the agency. Sources told City Limits last April that Schwartz's office had briefly circulated a memo proposing to dissolve HPD and distribute its functions to other city agencies.

Now Roberts faces a shrinking capital budget, confusion over policy direction and the continued loss of longtime staffers. Finding applicants for the commissioner's job was difficult, according to agency officials and advocates. “In a way they needed to get a young guy like Richard,” a source close to Roberts says, ” because an older person would have been less willing to jump onto the Titanic.”

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