Henson tightens rules for property owned by his staff Housing chief asks yearly inspections, sets repair deadlines

March 01, 1996|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Cracking down on housing department officials who own rental houses in the city, Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III has ordered his employees to abide by the strictest building maintenance standards in the city.

Mr. Henson said he also is considering a long list of other options to make the rules on property ownership by housing department workers "as tight as I can" -- including possibly banning future job candidates from owning rental units as a condition of employment.

"I don't see how anyone could have missed the message at this point," he said. "I don't like it, and I mean to make it as hard as I legally can for people to continue doing it."

The new rules are the clearest statement yet from the city's housing chief in the wake of revelations in The Sun that at least five housing officials were allowed to own blighted properties in the city for years with little or no enforcement action by their own agency.

The disclosures pointed to a faulty inspection system in which code enforcers overlooked or failed to act against substandard properties owned by their colleagues, ignored complaints by civic leaders and found themselves in multiple conflicts of interest.

"We owe a debt of gratitude to The Sun for bringing these matters to our attention," said Mr. Henson in a meeting Wednesday night with senior editors. "We made some mistakes, and we're not perfect. But we will be making improvements in the months to come. There should be no doubt that we intend to act. We are already acting."

While city lawyers continue to work on tougher regulations, Mr. Henson said he has taken steps that "represent a significant departure in the way we've operated in the past" on the question of housing officials owning rental properties. Among the key changes:

* Properties owned by housing employees are now subject to a mandatory annual code inspection, regardless of whether a tenant or neighbor complains. In the past, inspections were performed only in response to a complaint.

* If violations are found, employees will be given three days to outline a repair plan satisfactory to housing department managers. In the past, no such deadline existed.

* Employees will be given no more than 15 days to fix deficiencies. Further, most repairs "must be abated within 24-72 hours." In the past, city employees often were given six months or more to make repairs. By comparison, ordinary property owners are seldom given more than 30 days.

Mr. Henson said he would prefer an outright ban on any of his employees owning rental properties, but he faces a thicket of legal, contractual and ethical questions that city lawyers are trying to cut through in helping him fashion the toughest rules possible.

The biggest problem is that the city never has placed restrictions on employees having real estate investments. So the housing department might invite legal challenges -- and trouble with city labor unions -- if it suddenly ordered workers who relied on the old rules to divest of properties they bought.

"I'm not sure what you can do to restrict ownership in the face of a policy that has been in place for some time," Commissioner Henson said. "I know what I'd like to do. The question is, what can I legally do?"

Further, the department may not be able to prohibit employees from accepting properties willed to them by their parents or other loved ones -- especially employees such as secretaries and clerks who have little or no independent authority.

On the other hand, Mr. Henson said, the city's ethics policy gives him broad authority to ban any conduct by housing department officials that might lead to even the appearance of a conflict of interest. That might be interpreted to include all inspectors, lawyers, administrators or other workers who have a hand in issuing grants, loans, building permits or other agency instruments.

In any event, he said, time is of the essence because lingering questions about conflict of interest among his inspectors could undercut orders from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to step up code enforcement by the end of the year to combat absentee landlords who neglect their properties.

"We're not talking about months to get this done," Mr. Henson said. "We're talking about weeks."

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