State, city worked together to develop housing plan Baltimore's hopes, Schaefer's jibed

October 14, 1993|By Eric Siegel and Melody Simmons | Eric Siegel and Melody Simmons,Staff Writers

When U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros and Attorney General Janet Reno made their publicized tour of Sandtown-Winchester last month, city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III drew Mr. Cisneros aside.

"I told him I'd like to come see him about a plan for the city's public housing units," Mr. Henson said yesterday. "He said, 'I'd like Baltimore to be a national model. Show me a way.' "

The plan -- a joint federal, state and city project to replace rundown high-rise apartment buildings in four Baltimore public housing projects with townhouse units -- was the result of months of discussions between city and state housing officials. It was outlined Tuesday to Mr. Cisneros, who promptly endorsed it.

Under the $293.6 million proposal, 1,116 units at the crime-ridden public housing high-rises would be demolished and replaced, reducing density by 40 percent and making the blighted projects more livable. The proposal, to be implemented over seven years, calls for $193 million in federal funds, $65 million in state funds and $35 million in city money.

The city must still compete for the federal grant dollars, and the state and city portions of the funding must be approved by the General Assembly and the City Council, but officials are optimistic.

In fact, city officials expect the first $50 million of the federal money to be granted within the next 30 days and hope to get the remainder withing the next three years. Already, HUD officials are pointing to the plan as the most comprehensive approach to replacing public housing high-rises, which have been the sites of violent crime and vandalism across the country.

The federal-state-city partnership -- the first of its kind for public housing -- mirrors another successful alliance in Baltimore housing, the Nehemiah Housing project in West Baltimore, which brought together city, state and federal resources to construct new low-rise dwellings for low-income families and which now is a national model for urban renaissance.

Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke yesterday praised the state's involvement in the new project and said HUD's endorsement of the partnership represented the Clinton administration's receptiveness to "new thinking."

"We knew we couldn't just go in and ask for the money. What we're looking for is flexibility," the mayor said.

The plan grew out of a meeting in late spring between Jacqueline H. Rogers, state secretary of housing and community development, and Mr. Henson, who had recently been named city housing commissioner. The meeting, held in Baltimore, began with a far-ranging discussion of joint city and state projects.

At the end of the meeting, Mr. Henson recalled yesterday, "I said, 'I wish the state would get involved in public housing. It's the single most critical housing problem in Baltimore.' "

As it turned out, that was what the state had in mind as well.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer said through his spokeswoman yesterday that he had become "totally dissatisfied" with the decrepit public housing in the city and that he told Ms. Rogers to investigate a state takeover.

"I let it be known that I was unhappy about the drugs, the deterioration and the dirt that I saw," Paige W. Boinest, the governor's press secretary, quoted Mr. Schaefer as saying.

Part of solution

The governor realized that if the problem was going to be solved, the state was going to have to be part of that solution.

"The city has gotten an opportunity to do something in public housing that I never did and the city needs the state's commitment to do this," Ms. Boinest quoted Mr. Schaefer as saying of the new proposal.

Ms. Rogers, Mr. Henson and their staffs hashed out the details of how the partnership would work during "half a dozen or more long meetings," Ms. Rogers said yesterday.

During that time, she said, she briefed Governor Schaefer on the progress of the talks.

"He was concerned that we not be so focused on a long-range plan that we lose sight of the current residents. He wanted to make sure immediate problems were being taken care while long-term solutions were being worked out," she said.

Mr. Henson's Extraordinary Comprehensive Housekeeping Operation (ECHO), under which housing authority maintenance workers and police focus on specified buildings to make repairs and drug arrests, helped assure the governor these problems were being handled, she said.

In early August, after the plan was completed, Mayor Schmoke, Mr. Henson and Ms. Rogers went over it with the governor.

Schaefer impressed

Mr. Schaefer was impressed, according to the participants. But before he committed to it, he wanted assurances from Mr. Cisneros that HUD embraced the plan.

Mr. Henson, meanwhile, had been talking to HUD officials.

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