City's housing chief a study in contrasts

Despite his successes, Henson is haunted by questions about ethics

July 03, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

When the Murphy Homes and city Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III meet this morning in West Baltimore, one will remain standing.

Bet on Henson.

Six years after becoming commissioner of one of the most troubled housing agencies in the nation, the 56-year-old former developer will be one explosion away from making Baltimore the first city in the country to wipe out the towering buildings that became symbols of the urban poor.

In the past few years, the more popular bet among City Hall watchers was that Henson's career would implode first. The West Baltimore native has faced a string of allegations, but, five months away from the end of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's 12-year tenure, he might be remembered as its most accomplished administrator.

City homeownership has exceeded 50 percent for the first time in decades. Crime in public housing has diminished to a whimper because of the establishment of the first certified housing authority police department in the nation. Judges have been hired solely to prosecute hundreds of owners of run-down properties a month. And Baltimore has gained more federal housing money than any other city in the nation.

"He uses his troubles as his passport," U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of West Baltimore said of Henson.

Troubles Henson has seen. Shortly after leaving Struever Bros., Eccles and Rouse in 1993 to take the housing job, the mayor's longtime political strategist routinely found himself answering questions about his department's spending.

In 1994, Henson declared a housing emergency and spent $25.6 million of frozen rehabilitation money without public bids. A federal audit of 60 properties found shoddy work, overpricing and bogus bills. Questions surfaced when friends and family members of Henson and Schmoke gained some of the work. Henson defended the contractors as qualified.

A federal investigation resulted in the conviction of 13 people on corruption charges, including two former housing authority employees who admitted taking bribes. The biggest penalty for the city housing department required shifting $343,000 of housing funds from one account to another.

Three years later, demolition contracts to a small circle of contractors put Henson in the hot seat. Then there were the reports of housing administrators being slumlords, another working as a consultant to a company Henson regulated and the federal questions about hiring Nation of Islam security guards.

`Poor work habits'

"There were some poor work habits that had developed over the years," Henson said of the troubles.

With his back against the wall, Henson acknowledges instinctively striking out at his accusers.

"The difference between the mayor and I was that he was a quarterback in high school and I was a guard," Henson said. "My job was to keep people safe. At some point, I defended people who were not worth defending."

The son of a postal clerk -- who spent his first seven years in the low-rise Poe Homes housing projects -- quickly gained a reputation as the Mike Tyson of Baltimore politics. With a hard-hitting style, he looked for the quick political knockout. He was described as pugnacious, abrasive, combative and thuggish. Diplomacy was not in Henson's vocabulary.

"Danny Henson wouldn't stab you in the back," said former City Councilman Anthony J. Ambridge, now the city real estate officer. "He'd stab you right in the chest and as a person who has had my share of battles with him, I respect that."

Looking back, Henson views his management style as critical to getting a lethargic housing agency moving. When Henson took over, the agency was earning a grade equal to a D from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. It recently received a grade equal to a B.

"I don't have time sometimes to sugarcoat it," Henson said of his combative personality. "And that was necessary at the time."

Many of Henson's toughest foes have come to respect his style.

"I've come to appreciate his talents," said Northeast Baltimore City Councilman Martin O'Malley, whom Henson once called out into the street to fight during a council hearing. "We fought tooth and nail over that $26 million no-bid program that was supposed to help poor families, but in an administration that always seemed stuck in first gear, Danny Henson was one of the people who felt an urgency to move ahead."

Since he took over the city's two chief housing agencies, the Department of Housing and Community Development and Housing Authority of Baltimore City, Henson has turned crumbling city properties into shining red-brick communities.

The housing waiting list for families has dropped by 10,000 to 22,000 in the last six years. And although the number of units offered by the authority has dropped from 18,000 to 14,000, Henson has offered residents more Section 8 housing vouchers allowing families to live where they choose. The number of vouchers will soon be double what it was when Henson arrived, up from 5,000 to 10,000.

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