HUD shares blame for Section 8 scandal

Baltimore: Even as the housing authority crashed, Washington officials praised it as a model.

April 05, 2001

THE CLINTON administration and Democratic politicians on Capitol Hill share responsibility for Baltimore's Section 8 housing scandal.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and his two housing commissioners did little to stop the appalling waste and mismanagement in the city's low-income tenant subsidies. But Washington officials for years condoned those irregularities.

After "abuse, fraud and corruption" were alleged in 1998, appeals by Mr. Schmoke to the White House aborted a probe by the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Meanwhile, political operatives, including then-HUD Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo, lauded Baltimore's housing authority as a turnaround success that should be used as a national model.

HUD did not speak with one voice during the Clinton years.

While the inspector general was ready to employ confrontation in rooting out irregularities, HUD's "program side" wanted to steer clear of controversies that might have weakened the president's support in big cities.

Indeed, fiscal responsibility at HUD was a secondary concern. Higher priority was given to dismantling aging, problem-ridden public housing high-rises and relocating their tenants to areas outside concentrations of poverty.

As the Schmoke administration's housing czar between 1993 and 1999, Daniel P. Henson III engineered a seemingly impressive turnaround of Baltimore's public housing program. Troubled high-rises at Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes were razed to make way for attractive, mixed-income comunities with names like Pleasant View Garden and The Terraces. HUD executives hailed these projects as among the best in the nation.

But as tens of millions of federal dollars rained on Baltimore, little was done to solve the Housing Authority's management woes.

Mr. Schmoke showed meager interest. Mr. Henson inherited a bureaucratic wreck from Robert W. Hearn, then made it worse. The self-confident Mr. Henson had the energy his phlegmatic predecessor lacked, but he never put together a competent command staff or a system of accountability. He's still blaming others for problems that happened on his watch.

Some HUD administrators spotted these weaknesses. No red flags were raised, though, because many other big cities' housing authorities were in worse shape.

Not even a scandalous lack of working computers in Mr. Henson's housing agency prompted federal action. The whole system finally collapsed more than a year ago and is still not working.

A number of items highlighted in a recent, scathing audit are shortcomings that have not been fixed elsewhere, either.

Baltimore's inability to spend $124.3 million out of $167 million allocated for Section 8 tenant subsidies between 1997 and 2000 is an example. It may be an extreme case, but other cities have been slow to spend voucher money, too. At a recent housing conference, this was described as "a problem of monumental proportions."

Among the reasons for this slowness is a federal fiat that displaced public housing tenants be scattered outside minority areas and concentrations of poverty. Rental units that qualify for Section 8 subsidies also are in short supply in many neighborhoods.

Baltimore's housing commissioner, Paul T. Graziano, acted wisely in not contesting the findings of the federal audits. Instead, he outlined 16 corrective steps.

Will this constructive approach be enough to satisfy President Bush and HUD's new leaders? Perhaps not. But Mr. Graziano is so highly regarded as an expert on Section 8 programs that an appeal from him for time and understanding should be well-received.

In the past, the penalties threatened in critical federal audits seldom materialized. With a Republican administration in charge of federal housing, Baltimore should not take any risks, though.

That's why Mayor Martin O'Malley must give priority to repairing the worst and most pressing Housing Authority deficiencies, starting with the overhaul of the agency's pathetic, and unworkable, computer system.

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