Public housing moves into the 21st century

Henson legacy: Demolition of old high-rises will help new mayor -- and present challenges.

July 03, 1999

TODAY'S demolition of the Murphy Homes will bring the Schmoke administration closer to its goal of getting rid of Baltimore's aging high-rise public housing.

After the four Murphy towers are gone, only one high-rise complex -- Flag House Courts -- will remain. It is scheduled to come down next year and be replaced with townhouses.

Though demolition produces dramatic images, it is only the most visible part of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III's overhaul. His reorganization of the management structure of the 60-year-old Housing Authority took effect two days ago.

"It's like turning around a huge battleship," Mr. Henson says of the difficulty in trying to introduce modern business and management methods to the federally funded, 1,600-employee agency.

While key employees are retrained, the Housing Authority has been making its inventory more manageable. Other big projects -- such as Broadway Homes and Hollander Ridge -- are slated for demolition. Some of the replacement units are being sold to working families, in hopes of reducing social problems in the townhouse communities. Meanwhile, the agency is reducing the number of 2,850 scattered-site units by more than a third. Some may be sold, others demolished.

This overhaul would not be possible without the Clinton administration's public housing policy, which has been much more flexible than the previous Republican administrations'. The goal is to create better-managed public housing communities moving toward self-sufficiency. Whether this thrust continues will depend on the next president.

Mr. Henson has been controversial as the head of the Housing Authority. But he has reintroduced tight tenant screening and other common-sense management practices that are essential for public housing to succeed. He has not solved all the problems, but the Housing Authority is in far better a shape today than five years ago when he took it over.

Revamping the Housing Authority and building more manageable public housing communities are among the main achievements of the Schmoke administration. All mayoral candidates should spell out what they would do to continue the momentum.

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