Baltimore housing: first, cut the losses

April 13, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- Know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em, says the song. Know when to walk away, and know when to run. That's a pretty good rule, not just for poker but for business and for life. In plain unmusical prose, it means being prepared to cut your losses when necessary.

Sometimes this means obeying your brain when your heart is screeching at you to stop. Not everyone can do this. In farming there are plenty of examples of those who can't -- third-generation dairymen who just can't imagine life without cows, say, or people with thin-soiled farms who stick with corn year after year as the yields steadily shrink.

The agricultural term for this practice is ''keeping on farming until the money runs out.'' In other lines of work it's called going down with the ship. It may be irrational, and it may sometimes be simply the result of panic, of just not knowing what else to do. But sometimes, when it implies a deliberate statement of values deeply held, it's not without a certain dignity.

Even for the people who manage it, cutting intolerable losses and walking away from a losing operation isn't easy. It means accepting that what you've been doing with all your heart and soul was either totally wrong-headed, or was being done incompetently.

It means saying to people who counted on you, for jobs or income or leadership, that you've let them down. It means losing face. And, most painful of all, by not living up to standards set by generations past, it can seem to be betraying a trust. The fifth-generation farmer who finally sells out, though he does so in desperation in order to feed and educate his children, can't help but feel he has let his forebears down.

The brain comes around

But even when the heart can't accept all that pain, in most cases the brain eventually concludes, perhaps with some outside help, that the alternatives are even worse.

As The Sun's devastating series last week on Baltimore's ruinous housing policies makes clear to everyone except perhaps the people who implement them, the time has come for the Schmoke administration to fold 'em, to cut its losses and admit that it's licked. It has quite literally wrecked the city, but like the farmer going broke planting corn, it just doesn't seem to know how to stop.

The administration shouldn't have to shoulder all the blame for Baltimore's dissolution. The process has been under way for years, and Kurt Schmoke had the bad luck to be in charge when the end arrived.

Even Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who may have done more than any single person to shatter Baltimore's municipal viability, isn't really a villain. Like many a doomed dairyman, he's just kept on doing what he was told to do, which also happens to be what he knows how to do, and probably what he feels he was put on Earth to do.

Unlike the city's housing regulators, landlords in Baltimore have for years known when the time finally comes for them to walk away. They have been vilified for abandoning their properties, but they've really been offered no choice. If they stay, it has been made clear to them, they'll be ruined. So they go.

For all the brilliance of its reporting on the Baltimore housing disaster, in which many thousands of houses have been sealed up, torn down and made legally unsalable because of city liens, The Sun is off the mark in groping for a solution. Like generations of urban politicians, it clings to the idea that bureaucratic adjustments are the answer. They aren't.

''Experts say extensive retooling is needed in the housing department before the city can rebuild its ravaged neighborhoods,'' says a subhead on Tuesday's front page. It would be hard to write another sentence containing as many wrong-headed ideas.

''Experts'' aren't what's needed. Experts helped get Baltimore into this mess. As for ''extensive retooling in the housing department,'' get real! That's like repainting the Titanic's engine room as the water pours in. With regard to rebuilding any neighborhoods, ravaged or otherwise, if it has to be done by ''the city'' it would be better off left undone.

What's needed isn't retooling but elimination of the housing department, the cancellation of city liens, and the return of all city- destroyed or city-confiscated properties to private ownership as soon as possible, preferably by public auction with no minimum bid and no limitation as to eligible bidders.

Cutting their losses in this way would be painful and embarrassing for city officials to whom regulation is a life's work and the government-contracts game a source of power and joy. But, just like selling the old dairy farm before all the family money's gone, it's the prudent and proper thing to do.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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