Love or hate him Henson stirs strong feelings from friends and foes alike

March 03, 1996|By JoAnna Daemmrich

PUBLIC ADMINISTRATORS tend to abide by the same standard: They should be competent but not flashy, loyal but not overtly political, articulate but not argumentative. And they should never get more publicity than their boss.

But Dan Henson is a man who likes to break the rules.

From the moment he took the job, Baltimore's housing chief has commanded constant attention, intriguing critics and supporters alike, rivaling the mayor in creating headlines. He's been at the center of one controversy after the next. He's infuriated City Council members, captivated admirers in the city's poorest neighborhoods and drawn both sharp rebukes and awards of millions in grants from the federal government.

In many ways, as he starts his third year after being reconfirmed by the City Council on Monday night, Mr. Henson has lived up to the hopes and fears that accompanied his appointment to head Baltimore's twin housing agencies.

"There's no middle ground. People either love him or hate him," says Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, after chairing a six-hour council hearing on whether to keep Mr. Henson.

In early 1993, at a time when Mr. Henson was busy expanding his portfolio of developments, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke turned to him for help to rejuvenate a housing administration in disarray. Tenants were refusing to pay rent in the crumbling, drug-infected housing projects. The waiting list for subsidized housing had reached a record 32,000 families, and millions in federal aid for neighborhood projects had gone unspent.

From the start, Mr. Henson, the first developer to become housing commissioner, won praise for his energy, his business sense and his impatience to get things done. But critics worried about his abrasive style and wondered whether his background would create conflicts and whether he would politicize the housing administration.

Almost everything came true since Mr. Henson, 52, took over the Department of Housing and Community Development and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

The impetuous, creative Dan Henson lost little time in getting the entrenched bureaucracy moving. The political, controlling Dan Henson has shown a rough side at times in tracking the mayor's friends and enemies. The fast-paced, rule-breaking Dan Henson has attracted federal scrutiny and been caught up in scandals.

In his early days, Mr. Henson organized a crash cleanup of the worst of Baltimore's public housing developments and laid the groundwork for his most ambitious plans: to transform the four high-rise campuses where poor black families had historically been segregated.

Mr. Henson, who lived as a child in a West Baltimore housing development, mapped out a $293 million effort to overhaul the four high-rise developments that were home at the time to 2,700 families, mostly impoverished women with young children. The outdated and dangerous high-rise projects -- two on the west side and two on the east side -- will be replaced with modern communities of townhouses, health clinics and day-care centers.

Last August, a beaming Mr. Henson stood on a podium with the mayor and other officials to watch the spectacular end of Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore. Two months later, he told a cheering crowd that Lexington Terrace on the west side would be demolished next.

Mayor Schmoke credits the planned high-rise overhaul as his housing chief's biggest success, saying, "It was not an easy task at all. I think residents of public housing will benefit for years to come from his vision."

But the fireworks have been overshadowed by the repeated troubles of Mr. Henson's housing administration. For much of his tenure, Mr. Henson has been defending a $25.6 million program in which he doled out taxpayer money to contractors without competitive bids to repair rundown homes. The no-bid repair program became the focus of a federal audit, City Council hearings and an ongoing federal corruption investigation.

Federal auditors who made a spot check in the fall of 1993 found money wasted on shoddy work, inflated costs and bogus bills. And six people involved in the program have been convicted of bribery in the continuing probe by the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office.

Councilman Martin O'Malley, who tried to investigate the no-bid effort but was thwarted by the Schmoke administration, still is fuming. Mr. Henson, he says, has "utter contempt for any accountability to how he runs his department or expends public funds to help poor people."

Other controversies followed. Mr. Henson came under criticism for the poor results of an auction of vacant houses and for a quickly arranged deal with Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the development company in which he was a former partner. Last November, the federal government found the city had violated procurement rules in hiring the Nation of Islam Security Agency to patrol the high-rise buildings and ordered the contract revoked.

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