Seeking a court-ordered escape for black families from segregated pockets of poverty, six black Baltimore public housing residents filed suit in U.S. District Court yesterday against city and federal officials.
The tenants, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, asked the court to remedy what they called a 60-year history of segregation in Baltimore public housing by ordering that they -- and 12,500 other black families in public housing -- be given the chance to live outside highly segregated areas.
ACLU lawyers said the suit's main aim was to stop the government from replacing old, nearly all-black concentrations of poor people that ring downtown Baltimore with new ones. More than 90 percent of Baltimore's public-housing families are black.
The lawsuit comes as Baltimore plans to demolish four high-rise complexes and to provide replacement housing for 2,700 families, partly at the same sites. The first demolitions, at the dilapidated Lafayette Courts complex in East Baltimore, are scheduled for April.
"If not halted by this court," the lawsuit said, "the defendants will rebuild segregation for generations of public housing families to come. In complete disregard of their constitutional duty, defendants will squander a rare opportunity to right a wrong of historic dimensions."
However, Stuart Comstock-Gay, the ACLU's executive director, said the plaintiffs would not seek to block the demolition of the high-rises nor the temporary relocation of families from Lafayette Courts.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he expected the ACLU suit to rekindle in the judicial arena the political debate that raged last year over the federal Moving to Opportunity (MTO) program. MTO will help 285 Baltimore public-housing families move out of poverty areas into neighborhoods of their choice, including the suburbs. Controversy over the program doomed a planned expansion.
"They are trying to get at some of the same issues through thcourts that we tried to get at through the MTO program," Mr. Schmoke said. "Clearly I can't defend practices that resulted in racial segregation. But as mayor, I can't concede liability on behalf of the city. These are issues that could have been worked out in the political arena."
Mr. Schmoke said that "as a practical matter, the lawsuit won't have a major impact for at least a year" -- when the city is ready to begin rebuilding at Lafayette Courts. The city plans to build 460 units of public housing there, a significant reduction in density from the 807 units to be torn down.
Daniel P. Henson III, city housing commissioner, also reacted to the suit with ambivalence. He criticized the suit as an attempt to "substitute the housing policy of a few ACLU lawyers for that of hundreds of people" who participated in planning the Lafayette Courts redevelopment.
"I can't ask people at Lafayette Courts to wait a year, two, five or 10 years for these fairy-tale remedies to come about while they're sitting in units falling apart on them," Mr. Henson said.
But Mr. Henson hinted that a federal court order forcing surrounding counties to provide affordable housing for Baltimore's poor would be to his liking.
"The city has 90 percent of the public housing in the region. It is the repository for 80 percent of the region's poor. People ought to have the right to live where they want to live even if they're poor," he said.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, a defendant in the suit, did not respond to requests for comment.
Susan Goering, the ACLU's legal director, said court-ordered remedies for public housing segregation could include:
* Issuing certificates for federally subsidized housing that would give tenants a chance to rent apartments in nonsegregated parts of the city or in the suburbs.
* Requiring that all housing developments include a percentage of low-income units.
Such a law is in effect in Montgomery County.
* Rebuilding demolished housing projects as mixed-income developments that would attract middle-class residents as well as public housing tenants.
Doris Tinsley, a plaintiff who lives in scattered-site public housing on a blighted block of East Baltimore's Johnston Square neighborhood, said she would "like to live anywhere where my kids don't have to duck and dodge bullets."
The first-floor storm windows of the building where Ms. Tinsley, 42, has lived since 1987 with three of her children have several bullet holes. The alley behind the house is strewn with trash and broken glass. She pays $209 a month for a four-bedroom apartment.
"No matter what I teach my children, that environment is teaching them something else," said Ms. Tinsley, referring to the area's active drug trade. "My greatest fear for my 15-year-old son is that, with the environment we live in, he'll go out and commit a crime that will cause him to be in jail for the rest of his life."
Carmen Thompson, 32, another plaintiff, grew up in public housing in Cherry Hill. Now she pays $60 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in a Lexington Terrace high-rise. After seeing a drug addict die of an overdose steps from her door and watching drug traffickers battle for West Baltimore turf, she sent her 10-year-old son to live with her mother.
The ACLU's lawsuit, like MTO, is modeled on the Gautreaux case, a Chicago desegregation lawsuit that has enabled more than 5,500 black public-housing families to move to nonsegregated areas of Chicago and to 130 suburbs.
The Gautreaux Plan, named for the public housing tenant who filed the lawsuit in 1966, has resulted in higher incomes for the families involved and dramatically lower dropout rates among their children, studies have shown.