Housing outrages pile up, but then, what else is new?

December 18, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the city of Baltimore, where ruined blocks of abandoned, rotting homes could be burned to the ground and not one soul would shed a tear, we have Daniel P. Henson, commissioner of housing. Henson burns no homes. He is paid to bring them back to life but in the process burns enormous taxpayer money.

The latest tabulation is $300 million. The numbers are compiled by The Sun's Ronnie Greene and John O'Donnell, who spent seven months examining four years of Board of Estimates minutes, of courthouse loan records, of computerized building permits, of formerly secret Housing and Community Development documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The results, in some earlier time, might have caused municipal heartache. But no more. With this housing department, and this commissioner, and this mayor who controls the Board of Estimates that casually OKs so much erratic spending, they bring mainly an instinctive shrug and an echo: What else is new?

This time, we learn of an empty brick shell on High Street being turned into housing for nine homeless men. The taxpayer cost is $400,000, which is roughly five times the ordinary price of a home in this neighborhood.

This time, we learn of $1 million spent on six rowhouses in working-class Sandtown-Winchester - a $165,000 average that is maybe triple the typical cost of a neighborhood house.

This time, we learn of $80,000 handed to a company headed by a convicted felon with a 30-year arrest record, and this time we learn of $181,000 handed to a big-shot Washington lawyer to repair one rowhouse.

This time, we learn of enormous "soft costs" - consulting fees, legal bills - running to 20 percent or 30 percent of the total bill, including two Mount Vernon rowhouses with soft costs alone of $113,000 per house.

This time, once again, we hear the familiar phrases from so many wayward projects: poor workmanship, terrific cost overruns, endless delays.

And this time, we hear Henson's response to the stories: He will begin to limit the amount of money his agency spends on individual construction projects. He will "completely revamp" the way they're approved.

"It means we're going to be saying 'no' a lot more in the future," Henson said.

But this is the kind of language you expect from a novice. It's language used after months in office, not years, and maybe the spending of a few million dollars (or tens of millions, or twenties of millions). It is not the language expected of a man who's spent his entire career in real estate work, and has spent four years overseeing the city's housing, and has spent $300 million in public money and now wishes to declare he is beginning to get a handle on the job.

But this is Henson, the Teflon commissioner, whose whole pug-nacious history in public office has been marked by controversy, and by outrages of all sorts, and by a mayor who stands behind him, come what may.

Some of this is understandable. The Schmoke administration now marks a decade at City Hall and searches for monuments to its existence. There are monuments to catastrophe, such as the schools, and monuments to incompetence and indifference, but none of this quite captures Henson's housing organization.

There's a lot going on there, an unusual (by the standards of this administration) sense of energy. In a city with acres of cancerous housing stocks, the goals are often well-intended. But unsavory things tend to happen along the way.

Three years ago, this newspaper documented $25.6 million worth of no-bid housing contracts awarded by City Hall, about one-quarter of it going to friends of Schmoke's and Henson's. Lots of the costs were inflated, some of the work was never done, much of it was done poorly, and some of the work was handed to inexperienced minority-owned companies while other, fTC experienced minority-owned companies were overlooked.

Henson's response? Maybe mistakes had been made, because the $25 million had to be spent quickly. There were emergencies everywhere. Public housing apartments had become unlivable.

No one was supposed to notice which mayoral administration had been in charge of such apartments over the previous six years that they were becoming unlivable.

Two years ago, the City Council made a halfhearted gesture at questioning Henson. The questioning came after housing inspectors were caught in conflicts of interest. It came after 13 people were convicted of criminal offenses in housing investigations.

The only tough questioning came from Councilman Martin O'Malley. Henson's response was to challenge O'Malley to follow him outside "to meet me in an alley."

In April, this newspaper leveled new charges: of maybe 40,000 abandoned city homes, and of a small circle of contractors getting rich demolishing those structures.

Henson's response? "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 right, of course. Because it's always the same issues, and the same outrages, and the same administration hoping the controversy will blow over, hoping people will forget about the shoddy work, and the huge misspent money, and the neighborhoods crumbling.

Until the next time.

Pub Date: 12/18/97

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