Schmoke's Housing Headache

January 23, 1993

When a business goes bust, the bankruptcy court approves a receiver. Working in a similar fashion, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke this week hired a private attorney to take charge of the troubled city Housing Authority while its leadership is being reorganized in the wake of the firing of Deputy Director Juanita Clark Harris and the reassignment of the agency's top day-to-day manager.

This is a curious way to dance around the problem, which is that the mayor did not want to fire Robert W. Hearn, the Housing Authority's top man who is also the city's housing commissioner. Instead, the mayor brought in lawyer Edward Hitchcock and two political enforcers, Danise Jones-Dorsey and Emmanuel Price, as his interim overseers of an agency which manages 18,300 units with a $70 million budget and 1,400 employees.

None of the three has any previous experience or background in managing federally funded public housing, which is one of the most complex and challenging responsibilities in any big city's government today. And while the temporary hiring of Ms. Jones-Dorsey and Mr. Price was ostensibly approved by the Housing Authority's board, the mayor alone brought Mr. Hitchcock aboard as his personal troubleshooter. Yet the downtown lawyer wasted little time in making it known he is now running the Housing Authority for Mr. Schmoke!

The mayor is a tolerant boss. He keeps giving his department heads new chances even after they establish a record of repeated failure.

This mayoral intervention is a half-way measure and is likely to make matters worse. It further confuses the lines of authority in an agency that under Mr. Hearn's direction has been going rapidly downhill. Not so long ago, the Housing Authority was regarded as one of the few well-functioning public housing providers in the nation. Today, the agency is out of control. Its high-rise buildings are so riddled with crime and decay that no one wants to live there -- despite a backlog of 26,800 families on the public housing waiting list. Its scattered-site units are increasingly vacant and vandalized.

Since all this is happening on Mr. Hearn's watch, he must take the blame. But so must Mayor Schmoke personally.

Two years ago, the Housing Authority conducted a nationwide search for its deputy director. It recommended two out-of-town finalists. Although both were highly regarded professionals, the mayor vetoed them and insisted that Ms. Harris be hired. The mayor's intervention so perturbed the Housing Authority's board chairman, Michael Kelly, that he quietly resigned in protest.

Mr. Schmoke's chickens are now coming home to roost.

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