Housing progress report

December 30, 1997|By Daniel P. Henson III

THE SUN's articles of Dec. 14 and 15 on the city's housing rehabilitation process left a lot of questions unanswered and created some misperceptions. The answer to ''How to rebuild Baltimore,'' a complex and perplexing problem, does not lend itself to simplistic solutions.

I believe that the solution is a multi-year combination of aggressive housing and sanitation code enforcement, selective demolition, selective rehabilitation, new construction and new products.

I have major problems with the high costs of many city renovations, and I have stopped many such projects from getting past the drawing board. I am convinced that the examples The Sun gave in its recent articles are exceptions and not the norm. Nevertheless, I have asked two housing department officials to continue to look for ways to cut fat and to stretch our limited dollars.

Neighborhood preservation

Finding the point at which demolition outweighs the benefits of high-cost renovations is not a precise science. Many factors must be considered, including community plans. There will continue to be many situations where the market cannot be the sole determining force.

The current efforts to develop policies and procedures around abandoned house demolition and developer-city relations mark a major departure from the practices of the past. The Sun and its readers should understand that this is new territory, that these are very much in-process efforts and that they will affect rehab costs and related issues.

Publicly funded projects are intentionally more cumbersome because there are more layers of accountability than in the private sector. The Sun cannot have it both ways: If you want high levels of accountability, you will have increased costs.

One solution, for example, is what we tried in our renovation of public housing units a few years ago (1,100 at less than $25,000 per unit). Rather than support that method, which virtually cut out all the consultants and soft costs, The Sun chose to second guess.

''Gut rehabs'' have always been expensive. Environmental laws and other factors continue to drive up costs. A soft housing market, vandalism, lead paint/asbestos and historic district requirements all may add to the costs. Many such projects have multiple sources of funding, each of which often has unique conditions for its funding -- resulting in much of the ''soft costs'' underscored in The Sun articles.

Good news

While we are clearly experiencing ''undercrowding,'' indicators are beginning to show signs that we have turned the corner: Our homeownership incentive and tax-credit programs are experiencing tremendous participation.

On Dec. 20, The Sun reported that the city continues to be among the region's leaders in home sales.

The Settlement Expense Loan Program alone has attracted more than 3,000 participants since 1993. And we are on target to achieve our goal of a 50-percent homeownership rate by the year 2000.

The ''Developer's Funding Guide'' -- over six months in the making -- is one of many initiatives to better organize, quantify, qualify and facilitate the development process. Recently, we met with over 60 developers to discuss development issues. We will continue to do so quarterly to further communicate and coordinate our attack on the abandoned house problem and to create better and less-costly ways to deal with the larger housing problems.

Our community transformations now going on in Sandtown-Winchester and East Baltimore and the unprecedented and heralded reinvention of our public housing lead the way in setting the stage for the Baltimore of the future. The citywide comprehensive plan that is now being created is key to weaving together the city's neighborhood revitalization plans.

As each community decides on its future, I am confident that entire neighborhoods will be uplifted in a cost-effective, comprehensive fashion. An even more perplexing problem, however, is how to get The Sun to recognize the city's housing progress and opportunities in context.

Daniel P. Henson III has been Baltimore City's housing commissioner since March 1993.

Pub Date: 12/30/97

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