Housing commissioner operates by his rules Blunt, savvy Henson rejuvenates agency

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Days after the rape of a girl at the Lexington Terrace public housing development, the girl's family marched into the office of Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III with a letter asking for a transfer out of their building.

Still fuming from a surprise interview with a television news crew, Mr. Henson took one look at the letter and turned to the tenant activist who led the family into the meeting. The letter bore the signature of Council President Mary Pat Clarke, a political rival of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

"What is this?" an incredulous Mr. Henson asked. "A demand?"

Assured that the letter was a mere request, Mr. Henson said it would take a few days to arrange a transfer. But when Barbara McKinney, the public housing tenant activist, protested the delay, it was all Mr. Henson could take.

"Bobbi McKinney, we are through with you," he announced, before bouncing her from the meeting. "Furthermore, don't ever bring any news cameras with you to my office again."

The encounter was typical of Mr. Henson, the politically savvy developer hired by Mr. Schmoke to rejuvenate the city's moribund housing agency. He is a political animal, and he has little patience for those who challenge his authority or try to embarrass him -- as Ms. McKinney learned.

Mr. Henson came into his job with a reputation as an impatient, swaggering administrator with a keen business sense and the courage to confront controversy to make change. He also was known as a political operator for Mr. Schmoke and someone who remembers his friends as well as his enemies.

During nearly seven months at the helm of the housing department, Mr. Henson has lived up to his reputation. He angers people with his blunt talk and abrasive style. He also gleans satisfaction by improving the lives of public housing tenants -- people he says are not unlike himself.

Since officially taking over on April 19, Mr. Henson has thrown the housing agency into high gear. He moved to clean up crumbling and crime-ridden public housing projects and renovate more than 1,700 vacant units. He also is moving ahead with development plans that were long stalled under his beleaguered predecessor, Robert W. Hearn.

As the city's housing chief, Mr. Henson wears two hats as executive director of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the commissioner of the Department of Housing and Community Development.

"I think he is doing a great job," Mr. Schmoke said. "I asked him to go over there and try to operate the agency like a business. I think he's done that."

Indeed, he seems to be steering the housing authority and HCD toward recovery. HCD, which suffered from low morale and disorganization before Mr. Henson's arrival, is responsible for administering millions of dollars in grant money, planning and development, and building permits and inspections.

Under his leadership, the housing authority launched massive cleanups of several of its crumbling public housing high-rises, which reduced repair requests and crime.

Mr. Henson also started a crash program to renovate vacant housing authority units. From spring through August, the agency renovated 1,747 vacant units, and it expects to complete another 480 units by the end of the year. The latest renovations are expected to cost an average of $20,000 per unit.

Overall, the authority manages 18,088 units, of which 2,111 remain vacant. Mr. Henson wants to have the latter number down to 900 by year's end.

He also is advancing a bold plan to demolish some of the city's 6,000 vacant houses -- a dramatic shift from the past practice of renovating as many as possible. The plan is for the city to acquire vacant houses on undesirable blocks and raze them.

"We don't have a vacant house problem, we have a population problem," Mr. Henson explained. "As people have left the city, we haven't reduced our housing stock."

As housing commissioner, Mr. Henson is moving quickly and with confidence. And sometimes that brings problems.

Last week, he acknowledged that a much-ballyhooed effort to auction 1,500 abandoned homes resulted in only 350 properties being sold to new owners. He acknowledged that the process needs to be simplified to be more effective.

Also, the federal government this summer rejected a $50 million city plan to level five of the six high-rises at East Baltimore's Lafayette Courts housing project and replace them with garden apartments. Before the rejection, Mr. Henson confidently predicted success. He even trumpeted submission of the grant application at a news conference.

Despite those setbacks, Mr. Henson is enjoying his job. And that has prompted speculation that he might one day run for mayor. But he claims to have no such interest.

"My ego is too fragile," he said. "I couldn't stand losing. I couldn't stand winning, either."

His friends agree that being mayor might not be his style. Sure, he has the instincts, experience, energy and grass-roots appeal necessary for the job, they say. But they also say he's too blunt, enjoys earning money too much and is too much of a free spirit to fit the strictures of being mayor.

"Dan is strictly his own man," says Westley B. Johnson, owner of the Five Mile House, a Reisterstown Road club that Mr. Henson has frequented for years. "He says things that people don't want to hear."

In fact, Mr. Henson was reluctant to become housing commissioner, partly because of the restrictions that come with a public position. Also, at 50, he did not like the idea of taking a pay cut.

"I was reaching a point in life where I was finally starting to make real money," he said, only half joking. As commissioner, he makes $106,000 a year.

Taking the job also required him to sell his share of Struever Bros., Eccles & Rouse Inc., the politically well-connected development firm where he was a vice president. He also relinquished control of the Henson Co., a consulting and development firm, to his two children who now own a 60 percent share; the remaining 40 percent is owned by the principals of the Struever firm.

The Henson Co. is working on a $300,000 contract to implement an affirmative action plan at the $161 million Christopher Columbus Center marine research center being built in the Inner Harbor.

Mr. Henson's business dealings sparked concern on the City Council that he would have too many conflicts to operate effectively as housing commissioner. But the head of the city's ethics commission signed off on his appointment. And Mr. Henson's friends scoff at the criticism, calling it naive.

"He gets all this grief because he is a businessman," said C. William Struever, a close friend and former business partner. "He's really making a sacrifice to do this. He is a guy who knows how to get things done."

Mr. Henson makes no secret of the fact that he enjoyed the money and freedom that came with being a private businessman. And he plans to return to it "in a couple years."

But while he sometimes pines for a life in private industry, he also saw compelling reasons to become housing commissioner. One was that he felt the housing agency was primed to move forward after years of budget cuts and regulatory hassles that plagued the agency under Republican administrations.

"The difference for me is Bill Clinton and [U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development] Henry Cisneros," Mr. Henson said. "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 to meet the same and even bigger challenges with fewer resources."

The other reason was political. He wanted to help the mayor shore up a part of his administration that was severely criticized under Mr. Hearn.

It is not the first time that Mr. Henson has come through for Mr. Schmoke, who grew into a friend and confidant after they met in the 1970s. For a while, the two worked in the Carter administration in Washington, talking business on the phone nearly every day.

They became closer when Mr. Schmoke was a federal prosecutor looking into loans and grants received from the federal Minority Business Development Agency, which Mr. Henson directed from 1979 to 1981. The investigations focused on loan recipients, not the agency.

The friendship was sealed when Mr. Schmoke was considering his first political campaign -- a run for city state's attorney in 1982. Mr. Henson was among the first people he went to for help.

"He looked me straight in the eye and said, 'I am interested in running for state's attorney and I need your help,' " Mr. Henson recalled. "I turned around and laughed at him."

Mr. Schmoke came to Mr. Henson because he had long experience in politics. "Since 1968, I can't think of a major campaign involving an African-American candidate that I was not involved in in some way, shape or form," Mr. Henson said.

Mr. Schmoke's campaign would be no different. Once the laughter subsided, Mr. Henson went to work despite his doubts about the candidate's chances. Of course, Mr. Schmoke went on to win the race, cementing their political relationship.

"He is good at the business side of politics," said Larry S. Gibson, the mayor's campaign chairman, to whom Mr. Schmoke went at Mr. Henson's suggestion. "He was our political secretary of state. He handled negotiations with other elected officials."

Those negotiations involved the currency of politics -- money and manpower to fuel and mobilize campaigns. As a result, Mr. Henson made enemies as well as friends. As a result, the mayor's political rivals feared that as housing commissioner he would punish the mayor's enemies and reward his friends. But there have been no complaints to date.

"So far, so good," said Councilman John L. Cain, D-1st, who had complained of political threats from Mr. Henson's camp.

Council President Clarke, who plans to run against Mr. Schmoke in 1995, said: "I think he's doing well. I'm pleased with the cooperation I'm receiving with my constituents' complaints."

Politics aside, Mr. Henson has been his old self as housing commissioner -- politically astute, a little cocky and unconcerned about ruffling feathers to reach his goals.

When news surfaced this summer that the understaffed housing authority had a backlog of 30,000 work orders, he took the offensive, pointing out that the labor contract for maintenance workers required they get time off with pay when the temperature reached 90 degrees at noon and the humidity 55 percent.

The news sparked outrage at the policy instead of the appalling repair backlog. Mr. Henson capitalized on the potentially damaging controversy by announcing that the housing authority will no longer honor that contract clause. He became a hero when he could have been fingered for blame.

He also has angered public housing tenants.

As hundreds of workers scrubbed graffiti and painted over grime and evicted squatters during a sweep of a public housing complex, a smiling Mr. Henson marched through the hubbub, impeccable in his nicely tailored suit and gold hard hat.

He chatted briefly with tenants but waved away their complaints about the intrusiveness of the operation. When approached by reporters, he said that the point of the sweeps was to rid the projects of the "human trash" along with the physical garbage.

The harsh words insulted some tenants, who saw them as evidence of Mr. Henson's "contempt" for public housing residents.

"You just don't say those kinds of things about people," said Ms. McKinney, the tenant leader at Lexington Terrace. "I don't like him at all. He is a very poor people person. He has no ability to deal with people's feelings. He looks down on public housing residents."

In Mr. Henson's view, the equation is simple: If people deal drugs, if they are a menace to their neighbors, then they are trash. And he is unrepentant, even in the face of criticism, in no small part because he once lived in public housing, a fact he wears like a badge.

"I've been phenomenally successful beyond any expectation I had in my life," said Mr. Henson, the son of a postal worker and a homemaker. "I grew up in the Poe Homes, along Fulton Avenue and in Rosemont. I was an underachiever in high school and . . . in college. I had no right to expect that I would be moderately successful."

And like a kid who fought his way to the top, he remains brash and willing to take chances.

When he hired a security firm run by the Nation of Islam to patrol the crime-ridden Flag House Courts public housing project, it outraged the Baltimore Jewish Council, which did not like the idea of a firm run by the Black Muslims -- a group it regards as anti-Semitic -- working for taxpayer money.

But the city's new housing commissioner never flinched despite all the issue's ugly potential for inflaming racial passions.

He met with representatives of the council and then led its executive director on a tour of Flag House Courts.

The meeting and tour did nothing to end the council's objection to the Black Muslim guards. But Mr. Henson, convinced that the firm is effective, has since hired it to patrol another development over the council's continued objections.

Far from inciting a brouhaha, his decision only added to his reputation as a candid, take-charge administrator who is unafraid to make change.

"Dan, without a doubt, has improved the lives of the residents of that community," said Arthur C. Abramson, the council's executive director. "He is very impressive. He is someone who operates in a manner designed to remove bureaucratic obstacles. He is a problem-solver."

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