Judgment time for Henson Confirmation hearing: City Council should take a thorough look at Baltimore housing.

February 12, 1996

THE CITY COUNCIL should use the Feb. 14 reconfirmation hearing of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III as an occasion to thoroughly assess Baltimore's housing situation under the eight years of the Schmoke administration. And if it votes to give Mr. Henson another appointment, the council should establish clear performance goals for him to meet.

Three years ago, when Mr. Henson was drafted by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to take over the troubled twin housing bureaucracies, the developer did so reluctantly. Yet Mr. Henson, a political confidante of the mayor, had little choice. The Housing Authority in particular had been allowed to fall into disorder by the Schmoke administration and speedy corrective action was needed. The mayor felt Mr. Henson could engineer a turnaround.

Baltimore's housing crisis has worsened in the past three years. This is due to an unrelenting exodus of the middle-class and visible disinvestment in many neighborhoods. Meanwhile, Mr. Henson has been either unwilling or unable to establish a competent chain of command at the housing bureaucracies. A control freak, he wants to be personally involved. Sometimes this works well, often it does not.

Mr. Henson's greatest accomplishment has been to get a program underway that seeks to replace all high-rise public housing projects with less dense garden apartments and townhouses. While this is good, the program's long-term success is in doubt. The number of vacant or boarded-up scattered site public housing units seems to be rising again. There is little reason to believe that replacement units will not soon be trashed, unless housing officials can get a better handle on management.

Mr. Henson's tenure has been filled with controversies that have ranged from irregularities in a multi-million dollar no-bid repair program to inspectors avoiding code violation notices on deplorable slum properties they own. In his rush to get things done, Mr. Henson breaks conventions but does not make sure that his decisions have legal sufficiency.

In the past, the City Council has seldom forcefully asserted itself on housing issues. But with Mr. Henson's hearing council members have an opportunity to correct this mistake and enumerate their concerns.

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