Housing commissioner operates by his rules Blunt, savvy Henson rejuvenates agency

October 03, 1993|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

Days after the rape of a girl at the Lexington Terrace public housing development, the girl's family marched into the office of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III with a letter asking for a transfer out of their building.

Still fuming from a surprise interview with a television news crew, Mr. Henson took one look at the letter and turned to the tenant activist who led the family into the meeting. The letter bore the signature of Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a political rival of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"What is this?" an incredulous Mr. Henson asked. "A demand?"

Assured that the letter was a mere request, Mr. Henson said it would take a few days to arrange a transfer. But when Barbara McKinney, the public housing tenant activist, protested the delay, it was all Mr. Henson could take.

"Bobbi McKinney, we are through with you," he announced, before bouncing her from the meeting. "Furthermore, don't ever bring any news cameras with you to my office again."

The encounter was typical of Mr. Henson, the politically savvy developer hired by Mr. Schmoke to rejuvenate the city's moribund housing agency. He is a political animal, and he has little patience for those who challenge his authority or try to embarrass him -- as Ms. McKinney learned.

Mr. Henson came into his job with a reputation as an impatient, swaggering administrator with a keen business sense and the courage to confront controversy to make change. He also was known as a political operator for Mr. Schmoke and someone who remembers his friends as well as his enemies.

During nearly seven months at the helm of the housing department, Mr. Henson has lived up to his reputation. He angers people with his blunt talk and abrasive style. He also gleans satisfaction by improving the lives of public housing tenants -- people he says are not unlike himself.

Since officially taking over on April 19, Mr. Henson has thrown the housing agency into high gear. He moved to clean up crumbling and crime-ridden public housing projects and renovate more than 1,700 vacant units. He also is moving ahead with development plans that were long stalled under his beleaguered predecessor, Robert W. Hearn.

As the city's housing chief, Mr. Henson wears two hats as executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I think he is doing a great job," Mr. Schmoke said. "I asked him to go over there and try to operate the agency like a business. I think he's done that."

Indeed, he seems to be steering the housing authority and HCD toward recovery. HCD, which suffered from low morale and disorganization before Mr. Henson's arrival, is responsible for administering millions of dollars in grant money, planning and development, and building permits and inspections.

Under his leadership, the housing authority launched massive cleanups of several of its crumbling public housing high-rises, which reduced repair requests and crime.

Mr. Henson also started a crash program to renovate vacant housing authority units. From spring through August, the agency renovated 1,747 vacant units, and it expects to complete another 480 units by the end of the year. The latest renovations are expected to cost an average of $20,000 per unit.

Overall, the authority manages 18,088 units, of which 2,111 remain vacant. Mr. Henson wants to have the latter number down to 900 by year's end.

He also is advancing a bold plan to demolish some of the city's 6,000 vacant houses -- a dramatic shift from the past practice of renovating as many as possible. The plan is for the city to acquire vacant houses on undesirable blocks and raze them.

"We don't have a vacant house problem, we have a population problem," Mr. Henson explained. "As people have left the city, we haven't reduced our housing stock."

As housing commissioner, Mr. Henson is moving quickly and with confidence. And sometimes that brings problems.

Last week, he acknowledged that a much-ballyhooed effort to auction 1,500 abandoned homes resulted in only 350 properties being sold to new owners. He acknowledged that the process needs to be simplified to be more effective.

Also, the federal government this summer rejected a $50 million city plan to level five of the six high-rises at East Baltimore's Lafayette Courts housing project and replace them with garden apartments. Before the rejection, Mr. Henson confidently predicted success. He even trumpeted submission of the grant application at a news conference.

Despite those setbacks, Mr. Henson is enjoying his job. And that has prompted speculation that he might one day run for mayor. But he claims to have no such interest.

"My ego is too fragile," he said. "I couldn't stand losing. I couldn't stand winning, either."

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