Housing agency far from proud past Mayor, ex-chief blamed for decline

March 05, 1993|By Sandy Banisky | Sandy Banisky,Staff Writer

In articles March 5 and 6 about Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's new housing commissioner, The Sun reported incorrectly that Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse Inc. receives millions each year from the federal government in loans for housing projects.

In fact, the company has received $12.5 million in government loans since the early 1980s, most of which was awarded prior to the beginning of the Schmoke administration.

The Sun regrets the errors.

Daniel P. Henson III, Baltimore's new housing commissioner, arrives to head an agency that for 15 years was the visionary, energetic pride of city government but now seems demoralized and directionless.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

From the Department of Housing and Community Development came many of the do-it-now initiatives that marked the Baltimore renaissance -- programs meant to reclaim an old city's housing stock, spur commercial development and raise city dwellers' spirits.

"It was where things were happening in the city," says Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a program manager in the housing agency in the 1970s.

But the cockiness and energy seemed to drain out of the department in recent years, under the leadership of Robert Hearn, a shy, quiet academic who former employees say was more contemplative than creative.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke blames the department's problems on the unsympathetic Reagan and Bush administrations, which cut urban aid programs and made grants harder to win.

But many others say they're tired of hearing Mr. Schmoke try to shift the blame. The blame, they say, belongs with Mr. Hearn and the mayor.

"When Hearn came, there was never any articulated vision, nothing about where this commissioner was going to get us," says Margaret Williams, a former employee who left the department in 1991. "We didn't know what neighborhoods were important or if we were supposed to do a little for a lot of neighborhoods. I don't think there was a strategy."

"It's a demoralized agency," says a Baltimore housing developer who requested anonymity. "And that's sad. There's still a lot of good people here. But they have no direction. It's hard to perform well if you don't know what performing well looks like."

Mayor Schmoke removed the embattled Mr. Hearn last month as controversies grew over $52 million in unspent federal funds and a rent strike in public housing.

Former aides, who asked not to be identified, say Mr. Hearn was maddeningly cautious -- like his boss. Mr. Hearn was incapable of making decisions, eager to avoid confrontation, and unable to define a plan for the department he headed, they say.

"We need an agency with doers," says 2nd District City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge. "The Hearn situation is we have thinkers but we don't have doers."

Mr. Hearn did not argue with the federal government, which provides millions of dollars for city projects, former aides say. He would not even fight for the agency when the city budget director pressed for cuts.

People who worked with the housing department under previous mayors remember a department that routinely stretched the federal government's rules as it searched for money to pay for neighborhood projects and downtown development.

Says Delegate Rosenberg, "The attitude was: If the regs [federal regulations] don't explicitly say 'no,' then go ahead and do it. We argued with [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] all the time."

Another former aide, who asked not to be quoted by name, said Baltimore's housing department got its activist reputation by fighting for its money and risking sanctions from HUD. "A slap on the wrist?" the aide asked. "HUD would slap you right in the face. But we'd say, 'Look at what we did with the money. Look at the houses we renovated and the family living in it and tell us how that can be wrong.' "

Betty Hyatt, longtime leader of Citizens for Washington Hill, believes Mr. Hearn is being given too much of the blame for HCD's decline.

"Dr. Hearn is a very nice man," she said, "just not very dynamic in his approach to the community, maybe a little ivory tower-ish. But he also came at a time when the bottom fell out of the [federal] money."

Others agree that Mr. Hearn should not bear most of the responsibility.

A former aide said, "The mayor was told over and over and over again about Hearn's incompetence. But as long as it didn't hurt the mayor politically, the mayor didn't care. When it became a political issue for the mayor, he replaced Hearn."

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