Bulldozing Baltimore no problem for Henson

April 13, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

HE'S BEAUTIFUL, isn't he? Mister Truthfulness, Daniel P. Henson, commissioner of housing and presider over the death of entire city blocks of the formerly living. And now, the man who examines a series of articles in this newspaper detailing a tragically failed housing policy, detailing maybe 40,000 abandoned homes, detailing a small circle of contractors getting rich demolishing some of these structures while neighbors cringe in their doorways, who responds by declaring: "If there is a point to the series, I don't know what it is. If it raised some issues, I missed them."

He's beautiful, isn't he? He's like an oncologist who tells his patient, So you've got bone cancer that's killing you and I didn't particularly notice it until it was too late to treat you, so what's your point?

A few weeks ago, we learn the city's population has dropped to its lowest numbers -- 675,000 people -- since World War I. We learn that it dropped by 14,000 in the past year alone. Last week, we had the mayor of all Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, calling for a new energy tax because the city's broke, which is what happens to a place when all taxpayers, middle class families and businesses, white people and black people and others, look at the housing malignancies, look at the shooting galleries for junkies they've become, look at the crime that's fueled by all of this, and see the indifference and denial at City Hall and finally say, We're leaving.

To which, we have the pugnacious Henson saying, What's your point? And the more diplomatic Schmoke, wishing to concede the obvious problems without insulting his political pal, saying that "some changes" ought to be made since we have housing for a city of 950,000 people but only 675,000 souls are still here but, hey, he thinks Henson's doing a swell job.

Somewhere between the mayoral years of William Donald Schaefer, when this housing policy commenced as a way of punishing absentee landlords, and the tenth year of the Schmoke administration, when the evidence of utter failure and the crushing of well-intended residents is everywhere, is it too much to wonder why someone in authority doesn't put a halt to this course of action?

Finally, at week's end, Schmoke admitted that "in too many instances, we have replaced the eyesore of a vacant house with the eyesore of a vacant lot. I'll be more cautious about authorizing demolitions in the future."

In response to that, Housing spokesman Zack Germroth said late Friday, "The department's policy on demolition is that we will continue to invite community participation in identifying problem properties and uses for them after demolition." It was a prepared statement that failed to directly address the mayor's remarks.

The city has one of the oldest housing stocks in America. The homes were well-built for their time, but their time has long since past. They're a mess. But would-be owners see the cheap price, figure they can fix them up at reasonable cost, and then discover they're pathetically out of their financial league.

Or, as The Sun's John O'Donnell and Jim Haner put it in their housing series last week, there is "an increasing concentration of households headed by poor, female or elderly residents too infirm or too cash-strapped to keep up with the repairs on their aged holdings. . And because their houses are so old, the cost of fixing them can now exceed" the actual value of the property.

If these owners can't afford upkeep, the city makes patchwork improvements and attaches monetary liens. The financially-strapped residents drift away, fleeing impossible debts, leaving behind not only former dreams but rotting buildings, which cause entire blocks to look like London during the nights of the German bombing.

A computer analysis of more than 270,000 property tax records and other documents by The Sunsuggests that some 40,000 residential addresses are now abandoned or decaying citywide. The city effectively controls these properties, but neither they nor the former owners seem to want them or know what in the world to do with them.

Henson's response to all of this, in a written statement to The Sun, was that any delinquent property owner has it "within his own power to keep interest and penalties from accruing. He simply must just pay his debt when it is due. Or, better yet, take care of his property like the rest of us."

That's a cold and oversimplified way of looking at it, and Henson knows it. He isn't stupid. Calculating and insensitive, yes, and willfully divisive, yes. But he thinks such a posture works for him, if not for this city. In the last mayoral election, he said some things that were racially antagonistic, and then tried outrageously to deny he'd said them, and the mayor sloughed it off. In a political campaign that intentionally played the race card, this was simply part of the game.

Henson now has his own game plan. He has visions of becoming this city's mayor when Schmoke eventually leaves office. He's got this housing policy that's a catastrophe, but he's run it for so long now that it's got his name all over it.

So he has to defend it. He does this by talking of deadbeat owners, which is sometimes the case, and ignoring the plight of all those who arrived with good intentions, seeking shelter and security they'd never had in their entire lives, who instead found themselves buried -- first by unanticipated problems with ancient structures, then by suffocating debt, and then by a City Hall that can't, or won't, admit that it is now overseeing the death of entire neighborhoods.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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