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J. Van Story Branch Sr., 87, directed city public housing


J. Van Story Branch Sr., who directed Baltimore's public housing through periods of racial integration and growth from 1965 until 1983, died Tuesday of cardiac arrest at Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital. He was 87 and lived in Randallstown.

Mr. Branch had been in good health until recently, when he hit his head in a fall, said his son, J. Van Story Branch Jr. of Randallstown. He had surgery to alleviate a resulting buildup of blood and was recuperating at Levindale when he died, his son said.

Mr. Branch was the eldest of three children born to a Baltimore steelworker and a homemaker. He grew up in a tidy neighborhood on upper Druid Hill Avenue in West Baltimore and sold newspapers and delivered groceries to help the family, said his sister, Velma Evans of Pikesville.

"We all depended on him," Mrs. Evans said. "He was the backbone of the family a lot of times."

Mr. Branch was a 1937 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School. He attended the University of Chicago before a lack of money forced him to leave, Mrs. Evans said. He moved back to Baltimore and worked on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a porter and cook and, later, at Bethlehem Steel, she said.

He married Elsie Mason, with whom he had gone to high school, in 1944. She died in 1992.

He began his housing career in 1943 in the City Housing Authority's application office, interviewing families for the units, according to a 1983 article in The Sun.

Mr. Branch worked his way up, managing Cherry Hill Homes for six years before being named assistant urban renewal director in charge of the Baltimore housing program in February 1965, according to a Sun article at the time. His job then entailed overseeing the management and maintenance of 10,280 publicly subsidized units. By the time he left, there were 17,000.

Mr. Branch often went into the office on weekends and was known for visiting the buildings to see whether things were running smoothly.

In 1967, when the city was integrating previously all-white housing, Mr. Branch oversaw a program to pay for telephones for black families who were moving in but couldn't afford them. The step, he told The Sun, would allow them to call for help if they ran into "organized opposition" to their presence. They didn't.

During the 1968 riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, Mr. Branch drove to the various complexes with his son, patrolling to ensure that they weren't damaged in the unrest.

"I was 12 years old at the time, and we were right in the heart of all the riots," his son said, recalling that storefronts were in flames, but the housing units weren't harmed. "He was keeping an eye on all of the housing."

Robert C. Embry Jr., who as city housing commissioner was Mr. Branch's boss from 1968 through 1977, described him "as probably one of the most able public servants I have ever met."

The housing authority under Mr. Branch consistently rated among the top in the country in categories such as occupancy rate, rent collection and response to maintenance calls, Mr. Embry said. His family said Mr. Branch also was instrumental in starting a housing authority marching band for youths.

"He was totally dedicated to his job," Mr. Embry said. "He was demanding yet fair, honest, incredibly hard-working."

But the challenges of crowding and crime ultimately led to a national strategy of tearing down large public housing developments and replacing them with smaller, scattered-site units.

When Mr. Branch retired in 1983, he told The Sun, "After 40 long years of being with Housing and Community Development, well, I thought I'd take early retirement. I think it's a good time to get out and let some new people in, to try new ideas."

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at White Rock United Methodist Church, 6300 White Rock Road, Sykesville.

In addition to his son and sister, Mr. Branch is survived by two daughters, Shirley Amprey of Bel Air and LaVerne Branch of Randallstown; and two grandchildren.

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