Henson's U-turn on tenant service

January 19, 1995

Baltimore's municipal elections are just eight months away. We were reminded of this fact this week, when Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, after considerable waffling, emasculated his pioneering proposal to require tenants of the city's 18,000 public housing apartments to do community work. And we thought Danny was a tough guy!

However much City Hall may deny it, it is clear that this U-turn was done for political reasons. With City Council President Mary Pat Clarke -- who once spent a night at a troubled public housing project -- challenging Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the last thing his administration wants is an open confrontation with public housing tenants.

The Schmoke administration's relations with those tenants have been rocky ever since Mr. Henson took over the twin jobs of housing commissioner and director of the Housing Authority. Unlike his predecessor, the vacillating and professorial Robert Hearn, Mr. Henson is a man of action. He is often brusque in his behavior and feels most communities do not quite know what is best for them.

During Maryland's recent gubernatorial election, it fell to Mr. Henson, a confidante and strategist for the mayor, to deliver the public housing vote for Mr. Schmoke's favored candidate, Parris Glendening. The message to the tenants was simple: defeating Ellen Sauerbrey, the Republican candidate, was a matter of life and death. Tenant councils were told that unless they delivered, "there won't be room at the table" when decisions are made.

Somewhat to Mr. Henson's chagrin, the tenant councils took this so literally that their members reportedly showed up en masse at a post-election Housing Authority board meeting, demanding room at the table!

All this -- and the forthcoming mayoral campaign -- explains why the Schmoke administration decided to go easy on the tenants and water down the controversial and emotionally charged proposal that would have required them to do community service as a condition for living in public housing. It is a pity, because Mr. Henson's original proposal was a solid one.

Despite this disappointing capitulation, the Housing Authority's new lease and grievance procedures are not all that bad. For instance, they include a long-overdue revision that enables the city to evict from public housing people involved in drug use or trafficking without a time-consuming hearing process.

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