The need for a strong special master Public housing: Confusion over Lexington Terrace underscores need for outside arbiter.

July 27, 1996

JUDGE MARVIN J. Garbis of the U.S. District Court has already decided that a special master should be named as part of the settlement of the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit over public housing in Baltimore. The judge still must choose a special master and define his responsibilities. Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson would like that role to be as limited as possible.

That would be a mistake. This special master must be more than an ombudsman for complaints from suburban residents disgruntled by the movement of public housing tenants to the counties, or for housing tenants themselves.

The judge should grant the master the power to ensure that this complex settlement is carried out to the court's satisfaction, so that city and county officials cannot play games.

We were struck, for example, by Mr. Henson's recent confusing, contradictory statements about the inclusion of market-rate housing for middle-income buyers in a rebuilt Lexington Terrace. That West Baltimore high-rise complex is being demolished today, continuing a program begun last year to replace the city's unlivable housing towers with garden-style units. A supportive U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls it the most ambitious remake of public housing in the country.

But Mr. Henson, arguing that no "lobby" exists among developers for building middle-class housing among subsidized units, seems more willing to experiment in the counties than in the city. The ACLU differs with Mr. Henson on this; it sees a market for new, affordable housing near downtown for "pink-collar" workers and students at the University Hospital complex. Social service and business executives also question the logic of spending millions to rebuild city public housing without making sufficient changes to keep them from failing again.

Judge Garbis is well aware of the skepticism dogging the ALCU housing settlement, having received 1,200 letters in opposition to it. A special master with strong authority could help instill confidence in the process, neutralize some of the politics and, most critically, help this settlement succeed.

Pub Date: 7/27/96

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