Housing agencies serving the city separate entitiesI am...


March 16, 1996

Housing agencies serving the city separate entities

I am writing to clarify some apparent confusion regarding the respective reporting responsibilities of the housing agencies of Baltimore. Part of the confusion is probably due to the dual roles of Daniel P. Henson III as both commissioner of Housing and Community Development for the city and as executive director of the federally funded Housing Authority of Baltimore City.

What is at issue is whether the City Council can determine policies and procedures for the operation of the city's public housing agency, thereby determining the future of housing for Baltimore's poor people. Who has the authority to direct HABC is an important question for this city and for others.

HABC is the fifth largest of 3,400 public housing authorities in the country. It manages almost 18,000 apartment units and almost 9,000 Section 8 certificates. State and federal law provides much independence to housing authorities but, most importantly, HABC's only sources of funding are from tenant rents and the federal government not from the city.

While HABC and the city Department of Housing and Community Development work closely together, the salaries of HABC employees are not included in the city's budget. Contracts of HABC are made in its own name and without the approval of city government.

HABC has its own funds, which are kept in its own accounts. Payments are made by HABC with its own checks. Employees of HABC are not under the jurisdiction of the Baltimore City Civil Service Commission nor are they members of the Baltimore city retirement system. HABC makes an annual payment to the city in lieu of taxes.

In other words, HABC is clearly not a city agency and therefore not subject to oversight by the City Council.

State law gives the mayor power to appoint a governing board of five commissioners. The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides governmental oversight. Not since 1937 has the City Council of Baltimore had ''oversight" authority.

The immediate issue has to do with whether the council's Legislative Investigations Committee has authority above and beyond that which is presently given by law to the mayor, HUD and the HABC Board of Commissioners.

To allow the City Council at this point to assert oversight of an agency that is clearly not a city agency would set a dangerous bad precedent. Public housing authorities were established as separate entities for the explicit reason that local legislatures often have differing agendas.

One need look no further than the recent cases of Washington or Chicago to see what can occur when the local legislature gets too involved. Each of these agencies has been taken over by HUD or a receiver in the last few years. In Washington and Chicago, each city was too involved and had to be extracted from the inner workings of the local housing authority. In Philadelphia, city government was almost totally noninvolved and a judge ordered the city to ''work closer with'' the local housing authority.

In Baltimore, there has traditionally been a close working relationship between the city and HABC. Indeed, the commissioner of housing has also served as the executive director of HABC since the 1950s. The Baltimore model is often cited nationally as a good example of how to provide coordination without giving up a degree of independence that a housing authority's board of commissioners needs in order to manage its business without political influence.

There is no reason to have City Council ''oversight'' of a non-city agency. We have always been willing to respond to the council in any and every way. We have already provided more than 20,000 documents and hours of ''testimony.''

But oversight would, in 1996, be contrary to 59 years of practice and usurp the authority of the HABC Board of Commissioners and HUD.

Like most large city housing authorities, HABC has some tough survival decisions facing it over the next few years. Politics should not play a role in these decisions. The interests of the people who live in our 38 communities should be foremost. The law is pretty clear that it was never intended that an additional layer of bureaucracy be added to the workings of a public housing authority.

Reginald Thomas


Kane's view of school bias

I applaud the March 6 column by Gregory Kane, "Testosterone, not racism, is schools' main problem." It pointed out what many people feel but are afraid to say for fear of being charged with bias or, worse yet, racism against a certain segment of the population.

I have been in law enforcement for more than 20 years and my wife has taught in the Baltimore schools for 14 years and $H Baltimore County schools for 10 years. In our shared experiences, we have known the general tendency is to treat students according to their behavior.

Yes, many students come to school with ''excess baggage'' from their home environment, but in most cases this can be worked through without significant problems.

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