Henson defends policies as housing commissioner

Ex-city official calls claims of bias in suit `ridiculous'

December 18, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Daniel P. Henson III dismissed yesterday as "ridiculous" charges that policies during his tenure as head of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City during much of the past decade perpetuated racially segregated communities.

"What I did was attempt to rebuild our city in a way that it could continue to grow," Henson said during four hours of testimony in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "The result is we've got a city poised on the brink of returning from the dead."

Henson, who headed the housing authority from 1993 to 1999, acknowledged that his goal in rebuilding the sites of demolished all-black public-housing high-rises Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace was to create communities mixed by incomes, not race. Describing Baltimore as a "segregated housing market," he said the likelihood that he could have created a racially mixed community on those sites was "slim to none."

Henson, now a private developer, was the second top former city housing official in two days to deny discrimination claims by public housing residents that the city followed policies to isolate public housing tenants in poor, minority areas. On Tuesday, M.J. "Jay" Brodie, deputy and city housing commissioner from 1967 to 1984, testified in the trial that began Dec. 1.

Public housing residents claim that the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development failed to dismantle the segregated system they put in place in the 1930s. The city and HUD dispute the charges, saying concentrations of public housing residents in poor minority areas result from Baltimore's changing demographics and broad policy decisions, not discrimination.

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is scheduled to testify for the city today.

Yesterday, much of Henson's testimony focused on the 1998 construction of a wrought iron fence around the since-demolished Hollander Ridge housing complex on the eastern edge of the city. Former Hollander Ridge tenants had testified that they felt the construction of the fence was an attempt to keep them out of Rosedale, a mostly white community across the city line in Baltimore County whose residents had frequently hurled racial epithets at them.

In their lawsuit, residents claim that by building the fence, city officials improperly succumbed to pressure from Baltimore County officials, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who pushed for the fence as a 2nd District congressman. .

But Henson said he supported the fence, not because of political pressure but as a security measure that could benefit residents, likening it to gated communities in affluent, white areas of the city. Noting that most of the money to build the fence came from HUD and the county, Henson said, "It was one of the best deals I ever cut."

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