Renovation plan leaves fate of poor unresolved

November 08, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IN THE CLOSING days of the Recent Unpleasantness, also known as statewide elections, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger was asked about an issue never, heaven forbid, mentioned in all of the clamor caused by maybe 17,000 candidates running for office around here: the poor.

"The poor?" Ruppersberger said.

He knows about them, of course. He just hadn't heard them mentioned in a season of statewide politicking and TV commercializing in which the poor were relegated to inconvenient afterthought.

In his four years running Baltimore County, Ruppersberger has tried to deal with poverty problems in thoughtful ways, without resorting to scare tactics, divisiveness or the chaotic tearing-down and building- up and tearing-down maneuvers that characterize the city's Eternal Unpleasantness, also known as Daniel P. Henson.

The latest from Henson, the city's housing commissioner, is a plan to tear down public housing on which this same Henson spent millions of public dollars only a few years ago for highly controversial renovations.

Does anybody remember? Just three years ago, Henson was grandly criticized for spending more than $25 million on public housing repairs, some of which money federal auditors then found had been squandered on phony or inflated invoices, plenty more of which included work that was done poorly or not at all, and plenty more of which (nearly $7 million in contracts) was awarded without competitive bidding to friends and relatives of city officials, including Henson and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Some months ago, when the deep thinkers in Washington managed to get their minds off Monica Lewinsky's dress, they noticed a much more unwholesome stain about Baltimore's housing bureaucracy. So they said they would investigate.

Result? Cries from City Hall that this was an act of federal racism. How dare Washington inquire about the spending of its own money? There followed retreat by skittish D.C. types, self-conscious regrouping and then a sign of sanity: Washington will, in fact, look into spending and building and tearing down by Baltimore's housing department.

All of which brings us to recent days, and the latest from Henson, who now wishes to raze some of this housing into which he so recently poured millions of dollars, and Ruppersberger, out there in suburbia with his own

problems, who was asked what all of this means to his county.

Among other things, city officials have talked a great deal lately of moving poor people out of the center city. Into suburbia, perhaps. Two weeks ago, The Sun's Gerard Shields reported on city redevelopment plans to demolish decayed pieces of downtown's west side, pulling down the last high-rise projects and moving the homeless.

Moving them where? The city isn't always clear about such things. Just: somewhere else. The city's long twilight slide has to stop somewhere. Already, about 70 percent of the region's poor, jobless and homeless live inside the city limits. The city has twice as many poor people -- more than 156,000 -- as all surrounding counties combined.

So, as Daniel P. Henson offers his plans to tear down more housing, the question is: Where might all these people go, Dutch Ruppersberger?

"Our philosophy," he replied, "has always been to build instead of tear down. Forcing people to move isn't the answer. We have poor neighborhoods here. But our plan has been to work on alleys and sidewalks, work on schools and crime, try to restore pride.

"And jobs. The previous administration created 800 jobs. We've created 22,000 jobs. Not by tearing down and moving people out. The city's got to focus on those things. We have our poverty issues. We talk about creating jobs and creating day care.

"When I took office, we had 90,000 rental units in the county. We doubled the number of our inspectors. We pressured slum lords. But we're not dispersing people to other neighborhoods."

All of the above was said in rapid-fire delivery -- not unusual for Ruppersberger -- but also seemed a prepared first line of defense. The city wants to disperse the poor for the same reasons the counties do not want them sent their way: In our time, the poor are associated, fairly or otherwise, with crime and drug traffic and neighborhood decay, and with middle-class people taking flight from them.

"What you're saying," Ruppersberger was told, "is probably similar to what every other county executive would say."

"Yeah," he laughed, "but they don't have to say anything anymore."

He meant, since Election Day. The old leadership is gone from Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel counties. The new hTC executives will have to deal with the poor -- their own and those who might be dispersed from the city.

Thus, as they look toward Baltimore, many will be asking two questions: Will those undesired poor be headed our way?

And, parenthetically, as Daniel P. Henson offers plans to knock down public housing he so recently spent millions to renovate, who will get the contracts to do such work -- more of the friends of Daniel P. Henson?

Pub Date: 11/08/98

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