Opportunity in the city's housing crisis

January 25, 1993

Silver linings may not be easy to find but perhaps it is fortunate that after years of disregarding the mismanagement of Baltimore City's Housing Authority, the agency is coming under intense scrutiny at last. A transition from one president to another is always a good time to take stock of local performance as well.

Since the Baltimore agency's deputy director was fired last week and the top day-to-day manager was reassigned, new evidence has surfaced about how out of touch with reality that bureaucracy is. For example, Housing Authority Director Robert W. Hearn, making one of his infrequent tours of the Lexington Terrace project, professed to be shocked by what he saw. Dr. Hearn's failure to run a tight ship was later defended by lawyer Edward Hitchcock, whom Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke hired to bring some order to the Housing Authority. "Dr. Hearn has other matters on his plate that are more important. He doesn't have the time to deal with this agency on a day-to-day basis."

This kind of comment is pretty amazing, coming from a man who is to conduct a 90-day assessment of the Housing Authority. Certainly the starting point of any review ought to be that all managers -- and certainly the top executive -- bear full responsibility for their agency's functioning. No one should receive an automatic absolution.

Henry Cisneros' appointment as the Clinton administration's secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development has given rise to an expectation that the federal government will be more understanding of local housing authorities' difficulties in administering public housing projects, which are in sad shape in virtually every city.

This may indeed be the case, but it would be foolish and premature for Mayor Schmoke or other city officials to think that Baltimore's considerable failures in this area will be viewed more sympathetically than under the Reagan and Bush administrations. Competition for scarce dollars will be fierce. Public housing agencies with a record of turning around bad situations are going to be likely winners, whereas failing agencies with unresolved problems -- such as Baltimore's -- are probably going to be regarded with caution.

This situation needs corrective action before it is too late. It is not enough for the city to have good ideas, such as the proposal to demolish five high-rise buildings at the troubled Lafayette Courts project. The city should also be in a position to argue that it can do a better job with newly constructed garden apartment units. But it cannot do that if its management of existing low-rise and scattered site units continues to be as deplorable as it now is.

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