Troubled public housing

June 07, 1995

The federal takeover of both the Washington, D.C., and Chicago housing authorities places the problems within Baltimore's public housing program in perspective. Avoiding the fates of those agencies should certainly make Baltimore Housing Authority Director Daniel P. Henson III feel some vindication amid criticism of his tactics. But that doesn't mean everything here is as it should be.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros announced in early May that a court-appointed receiver would assume total control of the D.C. public housing agency. That agency has proved incapable of providing adequate shelter for its 24,000 tenants. It has another 15,000 families waiting for public housing, but 1,800 of its 12,000 units are vacant and dilapidated.

Before May was over, Mr. Cisneros was announcing that HUD would also take over operation of the Chicago Housing Authority. That decision was made after the Chicago agency's entire board resigned, in essence giving up on failed efforts to make its 40,000 units fit places to live. Public housing in Chicago is plagued by violent crime and squalor. In addition, the authority was the subject of a scandal involving theft of pension funds.

There has not been any suggestion that Baltimore's public housing agency is doing as poorly. The local authority was severely criticized by HUD in an audit that detailed misspending in a $25 million no-bid program to repair housing units. Twelve people were indicted on corruption charges that evolved from a separate investigation into the program. But HUD asked only that $725,759 misspent in the program be repaid.

Mr. Henson says the no-bid program succeeded in repairing more than 1,100 of 2,400 vacant units in 15 months and provided homes for 3,000 people as a result. However, there are still 20,000 people on the waiting list for less than 16,000 public housing units. And there will be fewer units available when the city begins tearing down the Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace, Murphy Homes and Flag House high rises for redevelopment.

In assessing Baltimore's public housing agency, one must also consider congressional criticism of HUD itself. Mr. Cisneros has spent the past several months trying to justify HUD's continued existence by suggesting a reorganization to address its shortcomings. He is under pressure to improve all of the nation's public housing authorities. Another scandal like the misspending in the no-bid repair program and who knows what HUD might do here.

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