We Provided 1,000 Homes

April 02, 1995|By DANIEL P. HENSON III

The Sun welcomes challenges to its editorial positions, to be published either in this space or as Letters to the Editor. The Sun introduced its recent series on the Housing Authority's special vacancy program with the screaming headline: ''$25 Million Drains Away.''

That is not true. It was never even close to true. And The Sun knew it.

We took over 1,000 units of uninhabitable housing, and turned them into homes for more than 3,000 Baltimoreans in just 15 months. It is a first-rate accomplishment that cut through bureaucratic red tape and shows government can work for people.

So, are the ''Drains Away'' headline and your accompanying editorials cheap rhetoric that should be excused as simple journalistic excess? No. The rest of The Sun's reporting was as wrong.

The Sun dwells on what it called ''no-bid contracts.'' What people want today is sensible, responsive government that is not burdened by bureaucratic red tape. There could be no more obvious place where the rules were hurting people than in the case of this program. We simply were not going to be able to get more than a hundred or so units of housing habitable if we had to go through the cumbersome bidding process.

The Sun produced a factually-deficient three-part series whose thesis was that this project was a way to allow me to award contracts to my friends and to supporters of the mayor, many of whom The Sun further alleged were incompetent.

The truth is that we renovated over 1,000 units in less than 15 months at an average price of less than $25,000 each. That is below average for the type of renovations we did, and below what the Authority pays for the same type of work through our bidding process.

The Sun's suggestion that the work was not done or done badly does not hold up. Most of the cases it cites as proof of ''shoddy work'' were maintenance problems that arose months after the renovation work was completed. They were unrelated to the renovations.

The Sun also suggested that the Housing Authority made little or no attempt to check work or to challenge over-billing. Not true. It knew that we are withholding more than $300,000 from contractors as a result of work we did not like. We had also taken back more than $100,000 from contractors for work not done.

Much of the dispute with HUD does not even deal with allegations of shoddy or phantom work. It has to do with HUD's failure to locate certain documents that were in our offices (but not in the files in which they were looking), and with one HUD office's methodology for valuing the work performed, which both we and another office in HUD have questioned. The Sun knows this, too.

The Sun's claim of cronyism has no better basis. I have not been allowed enough space in this column to dispute all the charges, but I will give you an example. One of the contractors, Westley Johnson, is characterized as a ''boyhood friend.'' But he is 10 years older than I, and I did not meet him until I was an adult in my 30s.

The program was not perfect. A long-time Authority employee has pleaded guilty to bribe taking. We have learned that we have to be more careful when we rapidly expand a complicated program to make sure that unscrupulous people do not take advantage of a fast-changing situation.

The Sun has nonetheless misled the people of Baltimore because ''scandal'' sells papers. The $25 million did not ''drain away.'' It provided decent shelter for more than 3,000 Baltimoreans, all of whom were living in substandard housing prior to the program. We may not have been perfect, but we were damn good. The Sun knows it. The people of Baltimore have a right to know it as well.

Daniel P. Henson III is executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

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