New Housing Chief: His Biggest Drawback is Also His Biggest Asset


When Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke asked Daniel P. Henson III this year to be Baltimore's new housing commissioner, it wasn't Mr. Henson's first invitation to join city government.

The former developer actually got his first call to work for the city after Mr. Schmoke's 1987 mayoral election victory. To this day, Mr. Henson won't disclose what job they discussed, but he does acknowledge declining an offer from Mr. Schmoke. At that time, Mr. Henson explained in a recent interview, he chose to stay in his job as a partner of a local development firm because he believed the private sector was where he could have the greatest impact as an African-American.

"I've heard from my community that there is a need for an African-American presence in downtown Baltimore," said Mr. Henson, 49, until recently a partner of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse. "People have told me over and over again that, 'Alcott Place is nice, and some of the other projects you've done are nice, but what we really want to do is see somebody have ownership of some of these projects downtown.' I felt that I had reached the point that . . . I wanted to participate."

Why the change of heart in 1993?

"The difference for me is Bill Clinton and Henry Cisneros," he replies, referring to the newly-elected president and the new secretary of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

"I would not have wanted to be at Baltimore's housing department . . . during the Reagan-Bush years, when the official posture of HUD was: 'Don't do anything.' I would not have wanted to function as a budget cutter, as somebody who had to lay off people, as somebody who had to constantly look at ways in which to meet the same and even bigger challenges with fewer resources. That doesn't sound like much fun. With HUD as a player now, I'm enthused about what we can do."

Mr. Henson was nominated last month to head the Department of Housing and Community Development and its troubled twin, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, which manages more than 18,000 public housing units.

He replaced Robert W. Hearn, a taciturn academician who had come under increasing criticism for poor leadership of the once-progressive housing agency. The criticism included failure to spend federal funds awarded to the city, poor maintenance of public housing and a general dearth of creative solutions to the city's pressing housing needs.

Mr. Henson started his $103,000-a-year job March 15, with the title of housing commissioner-designate. The City Council, whose executive appointments committee held a three-hour hearing on his nomination March 24, is expected to vote on his confirmation by April 26.

Of the six men and women who have served as Baltimore's housing commissioner since the position was created in the 1950s, Mr. Henson is the first real estate developer. His predecessors include an urban planner (Richard Steiner); an attorney and City Council member (Robert C. Embry Jr.); an architect (M. Jay Brodie); an employment specialist (Marion Pines); and Mr. Hearn, who came from the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies.

Mr. Henson's background as a developer has generated controversy in recent weeks, as City Council members and others question whether his past ties to one company will create any conflicts of interest in his new job.

Critics have argued that Mr. Henson must sever all ties with Struever Bros. and its companies and agree to recuse himself from decisions involving his former partners -- steps he has taken.

According to Michael Millemann, an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, Mr. Henson's divestiture agreement not only goes well beyond the city's ethics law but "frankly exceeds the requirements of all ethics laws with which I am familiar."

While the issue is certainly not one to be taken lightly, it could be argued that Mr. Henson's greatest liability is also his greatest asset.

Assuming the conflict of interest questions can be put to rest, Mr. Henson's experience as a developer and lifelong student of Baltimore's communities appears to be precisely what makes him well qualified not only to head Baltimore's troubled housing agency but to get it moving forward again. Many of Mr. Henson's biggest fans include developers and consultants who have worked closely with him over the past decade and know how he operates.

"We are shocked that the mayor made such a terrific appointment," said Joe Fonte, head of Signature Properties, an apartment management firm that works closely with Struever Bros. "He is 180 degrees different from Mr. Hearn, and I think amazing things are going to happen. He's a doer. People are going to flock around him."

Mr. Henson is a "classic developer" who understands every step of the development process instead of specializing in one area, Mr. Fonte said. "That is not easy. Most people can't do that. He is one of the few who can. He can sit down in five minutes and know whether a project will work or not. He really knows the development business."

"Because he has been on the business side of things, he understands what the issues are," said developer Bettyjean Murphy. "I also think he's going to crack the whip in terms of job performance (by housing employees), because he's been in an environment where, if someone's sitting around, he's losing money."

Tangible Portfolio

Over the nearly 10 years that Mr. Henson worked with Struever Bros. as a partner and senior development director, he has compiled something no other housing commissioner-designee in the city's history ever had: a tangible portfolio of developments that are directly relevant to the work of Baltimore's housing department.

The Grove Park resident has been directly responsible for construction of more than 450 residences in Baltimore. A board member of numerous community organizations, he has been involved in many non-residential projects as well, from new offices for the Legal Aid Bureau near City Hall to restoration of the Orchard Street Church.

Skeptics can see the care that went into the restoration of the old Louisa May Alcott School on Reisterstown Road, now a 44-unit apartment building for the elderly called Alcott Place. They can inspect the quality of construction of the town houses at Frederick Heights, a 122-unit town house community off Old Frederick Road, where three-bedroom houses sold for $60,000. They can stroll through the soaring atrium of Tindeco Wharf, the 240-unit waterfront housing complex created inside an old tin can factory on Boston Street.

Mr. Henson's portfolio also includes Grindall's Yard, 18 town houses near Federal Hill; and Dartmouth Glen, 44 town houses near Chinquapin Park. Earlier this year, his development team received preliminary city Planning Commission approval to build Cylburn Hills, the 102-unit next phase of Coldspring New Town. He has experience with low-income housing and luxury housing, new construction and adaptive reuse. He has worked successfully with federal, state, city and private funding programs and a combination of all four.

"The placement of a developer at the head of the agency is an inspired choice," says Patricia Massey, a former housing department official who now heads the non-profit Baltimore Corporation for Housing Partnerships. "A person who comes to that department with solid development experience is going to have tremendous impact."

Mr. Henson is a board member of the partnership. "I've found him to be extremely knowledgeable," Ms. Massey said. "He knows the neighborhoods. He knows job creation. He knows about financing, and he knows about design and construction."

Even before joining Struever Bros. in 1984, Mr. Henson had a variety of experiences that would be relevant to the job of housing commissioner, starting with his childhood.

He was born in Baltimore and lived for his first six years in public housing on Fremont Avenue, across from the Lexington Terrace high rises. His father was a postal worker; his mother, a homemaker. One of five children, he attended public schools and went on to receive a bachelors degree from Morgan State University, earning 100 percent of his college expenses.

After college, he worked as a social studies teacher in Baltimore and then as an insurance agent. From 1977 to 1979, he was a regional administrator for the U.S. Small Business Administration. While with the SBA, he helped establish a loan program that assisted minority businesses opening shops at Harborplace.

From 1979 to 1981, he was director of the Minority Business Development Agency in the Department of Commerce, a job that brought him into contact with the White House. In 1981 he returned to Baltimore as the director of minority business for the Greater Baltimore Committee. In 1983 and 1984, he served as vice president of marketing for G & M Oil Co. In the early 1980s, he was also co-host of "City Line," an hour-long urban affairs television show on Channel 13.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

In his meeting with the City Council members, Mr. Henson said the greatest strength he brings to the job is an ability to work with community groups and small developers to help them realize their plans.

As a former board member of the Baltimore Urban League, for example, he helped convince the organization's leaders that the league would be the perfect occupant for the Orchard Street Church and would benefit greatly by restoring a building with strong significance to African-Americans. That kind of physical problem-solving is what he wants to do more of as housing commissioner, he says.

"I can sit down with a community group and pay a couple of minutes of attention to what their ultimate goal is, what they really want to achieve, and why they want to achieve it, and then put together a plan of action or a concept that makes sense and implement it. That's what all of the experience I've had so far has prepared me to do."

Mr. Schmoke has said he hopes his new housing commissioner will bring "more of an entrepreneurial spirit" to the agency. Indeed, his selection of Mr. Henson can be seen as part of a trend in which developers are pursuing work in the public sector with increasing frequency, in part because that's where the action is in the still-sluggish real estate market.

The Rouse Company, for example, has a contract to provide construction management services for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration. Struever Bros. has been selected to help plan the children's museum at the Brokerage. Given the bricks-and-mortar nature of the housing department, it is not surprising that Mr. Schmoke would choose a developer to run the housing agency. What's more surprising is that no one did it before.

Edward Gunts, a reporter for The Baltimore Sun, covers development issues.

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