New Housing Chief: His Biggest Drawback is Also His Biggest Asset

EDWARD GUNTS

April 04, 1993|By EDWARD GUNTS

When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asked Daniel P. Henson III this year to be Baltimore's new housing commissioner, it wasn't Mr. Henson's first invitation to join city government.

The former developer actually got his first call to work for the city after Mr. Schmoke's 1987 mayoral election victory. To this day, Mr. Henson won't disclose what job they discussed, but he does acknowledge declining an offer from Mr. Schmoke. At that time, Mr. Henson explained in a recent interview, he chose to stay in his job as a partner of a local development firm because he believed the private sector was where he could have the greatest impact as an African-American.

"I've heard from my community that there is a need for an African-American presence in downtown Baltimore," said Mr. Henson, 49, until recently a partner of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. "People have told me over and over again that, 'Alcott Place is nice, and some of the other projects you've done are nice, but what we really want to do is see somebody have ownership of some of these projects downtown.' I felt that I had reached the point that . . . I wanted to participate."

Why the change of heart in 1993?

"The difference for me is Bill Clinton and Henry Cisneros," he replies, referring to the newly-elected president and the new secretary of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

"I would not have wanted to be at Baltimore's housing department . . . during the Reagan-Bush years, when the official posture of HUD was: 'Don't do anything.' I would not have wanted to function as a budget cutter, as somebody who had to lay off people, as somebody who had to constantly look at ways in which to meet the same and even bigger challenges with fewer resources. That doesn't sound like much fun. With HUD as a player now, I'm enthused about what we can do."

Mr. Henson was nominated last month to head the Department of Housing and Community Development and its troubled twin, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which manages more than 18,000 public housing units.

He replaced Robert W. Hearn, a taciturn academician who had come under increasing criticism for poor leadership of the once-progressive housing agency. The criticism included failure to spend federal funds awarded to the city, poor maintenance of public housing and a general dearth of creative solutions to the city's pressing housing needs.

Mr. Henson started his $103,000-a-year job March 15, with the title of housing commissioner-designate. The City Council, whose executive appointments committee held a three-hour hearing on his nomination March 24, is expected to vote on his confirmation by April 26.

Of the six men and women who have served as Baltimore's housing commissioner since the position was created in the 1950s, Mr. Henson is the first real estate developer. His predecessors include an urban planner (Richard Steiner); an attorney and City Council member (Robert C. Embry Jr.); an architect (M. Jay Brodie); an employment specialist (Marion Pines); and Mr. Hearn, who came from the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. Henson's background as a developer has generated controversy in recent weeks, as City Council members and others question whether his past ties to one company will create any conflicts of interest in his new job.

Critics have argued that Mr. Henson must sever all ties with Struever Bros. and its companies and agree to recuse himself from decisions involving his former partners -- steps he has taken.

According to Michael Millemann, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, Mr. Henson's divestiture agreement not only goes well beyond the city's ethics law but "frankly exceeds the requirements of all ethics laws with which I am familiar."

While the issue is certainly not one to be taken lightly, it could be argued that Mr. Henson's greatest liability is also his greatest asset.

Assuming the conflict of interest questions can be put to rest, Mr. Henson's experience as a developer and lifelong student of Baltimore's communities appears to be precisely what makes him well qualified not only to head Baltimore's troubled housing agency but to get it moving forward again. Many of Mr. Henson's biggest fans include developers and consultants who have worked closely with him over the past decade and know how he operates.

"We are shocked that the mayor made such a terrific appointment," said Joe Fonte, head of Signature Properties, an apartment management firm that works closely with Struever Bros. "He is 180 degrees different from Mr. Hearn, and I think amazing things are going to happen. He's a doer. People are going to flock around him."

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