How city can rise above wreckage Solutions: Experts say extensive retooling is needed in the housing department before the city can rebuild its ravaged neighborhoods.

April 08, 1997|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,SUN STAFF Also contributing to this article: staff writers Ronnie Greene, Walter F. Roche Jr., Scott Higham and Brenda J. Buote; electronic news editor Michael Himowitz; news researchers Jean Packard, Paul McCardell, Dee Lyon and Susan Waters; electronic news assistants, Angela Gaddy, Laura Barnhardt and Genice Owens.

No one envies Dan Henson, not his critics or his friends. Since he took office four years ago, Baltimore's housing commissioner has had to cope with one crisis after another - including revelations last year that several of his subordinates were slum landlords.

Now, he faces new evidence of how deeply troubled the agency he inherited is: An outmoded housing code enforcement program has worsened the decline of city neighborhoods.

A yearlong investigation by The Sun has shown that the Department of Housing and Community Development has squandered millions on the haphazard demolition and cosmetic repair of rundown houses citywide - enriching contractors and billing property owners for work that few can afford. Buried in city debts, many have been forced to give up their stakes in the city.

A former developer well known for his bullish manner, Henson has been digging his spurs into the thick hide of the agency since 1993, inching it toward modernization. In refusing a request for an interview, he wrote a four-page letter trumpeting the new programs he has begun, the millions he has spent, the thousands of substandard dwellings his department has torn down.

"Will we actually change procedures based on your findings?" he wrote in February. "Probably, if it makes sense. But I have no intention of wasting another couple of hours chatting with you."

Urban planners and other housing experts from Newark to New Orleans say he has more than a few changes to make.

Among them are to forgive the hefty liens that grow from the agency's uncontrolled enforcement effort and to rely more heavily on the thrifty rehabilitation efforts of private citizens and nonprofit groups to revive salvageable homesteads.

Moreover, these experts suggest, Baltimore should harmonize its housing policies and turn to mass demolitions that eliminate the spotty blight infecting city neighborhoods.

But most of all, the agency must distinguish between slumlords and well-intentioned owners, investors and their families whose goodwill is crucial to reconstructing Baltimore.

"This may sound like a simple thing to the average taxpayer," says Joe McNeely, a local housing activist and consultant to cities nationwide. "But if Dan Henson can make this work, he will have done something that nobody before him has been able to do. Up till now, the whole focus has been on enforcement. The city treats everybody the same, regardless of their circumstances.

"We've been hitting people with a hammer. And sometimes what they need is a hand," he says.

Evidence of that hammer is contained in thousands of pages of documents containing scores of examples of ordinary homeowners and small-time landlords mauled by a lumbering public agency without clearly defined goals, consistent methods basic tools to manage the city's plague of abandonment and blight.

Some houses are boarded. Others receive slapdash face-lifts to stave off complaints from neighbors. Some are torn down. And some get all three, while other houses in the same condition on the same block go untouched. Millions in tax dollars have been spent on such exercises in recent years, records show.

"For anyone who has observed the numbers coming out of Baltimore over time, there is obviously a lot of waste . . . going on," says Dr. David Listokin, a senior urban planning researcher at Rutgers University who has been studying national housing trends for more than 20 years. "The patterns are pretty clear."

Evidence of such waste is contained in the saga of housing contract No. 21868 - a $293,000 package deal for a Joppa-based company called J&M Construction Inc. to renovate three abandoned hulks so they could be sold.

First was 513 Glenwood Ave., a clapboard bungalow with a sagging roof that sat on a weed-choked lot in Northeast Baltimore for the better part of a decade before the city seized it from the owners by court order.

In 1993, housing officials paid a contractor $11,400 to paint it, patch the porch roof, replace the front door, install six new shutters, mow the weeds and raze the garage.

These cosmetic make-overs appeased complaining neighbors. But they overlooked one small fact: "The house has termite damage so bad it should be torn down," a city inspector wrote on Feb. 14, 1995, 12 days after work began. That brought the planned renovation by J&M Construction to a halt.

Housing officials changed course and ordered the old house demolished, paying $14,000 for the work and $2,800 for the demolition.

The final cost to taxpayers for the resulting vacant lot: more than $28,000.

But contract No. 21868 did not end there.

J&M Construction also had begun renovations on two crumbling rowhouses at 9 and 11 N. Caroline St. in Washington Hill. Unnoticed by city housing engineers who authorized the work was the brittle condition of the buildings.

No sooner did the job begin than the houses collapsed.

"On April 3, 1995, the structures fell," company President James M. Myers reported to the city.

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