ACLU seeks to block demolition

March 24, 1995|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers | JoAnna Daemmrich and Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writers

Worried that Baltimore is poised to re-create a segregated pocket of poverty, the American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to stop the city from tearing down the first of its cramped, dangerous public housing high-rises.

Weeks before the city was to begin razing six dilapidated high-rise towers at Lafayette Courts in East Baltimore, ACLU lawyers are preparing to ask a federal judge to block the demolition. ACLU lawyers notified the Baltimore Housing Authority of their plan this week, and a motion could be filed as early as today.

"Our clients are disturbed that they are simply building another public housing development -- all public housing, all black, all poor, and very dense," said ACLU lawyer Barbara Samuels. "They're wondering what this is going to look like five years from now."

City housing officials want to tear down the first of the Lafayette Courts towers as early as May, the first stage in an ambitious $293 million program to overhaul the four most worn and outdated public housing developments.

Families already have begun moving out of the 807 apartments in the six high-rises and 17 low-rise buildings. The city initially laid out plans to rebuild 460 public housing units, both as a senior high-rise and traditional Baltimore rowhouses there, a significant reduction in density.

The rowhouse plan is seen as a dramatic departure from the design of typical public housing projects, one that would create an entirely new Baltimore neighborhood.

However, ACLU lawyers said the plan would continue what they call a 60-year history of segregation in Baltimore public housing because all of the apartments would be reserved for the poorest residents or the elderly.

They also object to rebuilding a senior citizen high rise at the 21-acre site because it would decrease the amount of public housing for the thousands of families now on the city's waiting list.

Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said the city already has offered to make significant concessions, including reducing the density to 338 units. The senior high-rise building, now scheduled to have 196 apartments, would be limited to 110, he said.

"Clearly, on behalf of the residents of Lafayette Courts and of the residents in all the atrocious family high-rise buildings, we're going to fight," Mr. Henson said last night.

"We have tried very hard to settle this case," he added. "We believe we've done everything we could, but simply not utilizing a 21-acre site that is a prime residential site in East Baltimore would not be consistent with good planning."

The ACLU lawyers said they do not oppose rebuilding any public housing at Lafayette Courts, located behind the main Post Office in East Baltimore.

But they object to limiting the new development to public housing, saying it should include homes that could be sold to low- and moderate-income families.

In January, the ACLU tried to block the project with a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The plan, according to the suit, reflected a "complete disregard" for the Housing Authority's constitutional duties to tenants. The ACLU said the agency would "squander a rare opportunity to right a wrong of historic dimensions."

Black families living in Lafayette Courts also would have few chances to escape segregated poverty under the Housing Authority's plan to replace the remaining 347 units, said Susan Goering, the ACLU's legal director. The authority's current plan calls mainly for replacing the units by renovating abandoned homes in neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester.

"You don't revitalize neighborhoods with public housing," she said. "It just builds more structural poverty in neighborhoods that are already poor."

Baltimore's long-awaited plans for tearing down its badly deteriorating public high rises began a year ago with a $50 million federal grant. The Housing Authority, which lined up $115 million in all to demolish the Lafayette Courts towers, is 'u rebuilding the replacement housing in partnership with the state, which chipped in $70 million over the next seven years.

In the first year, 157 apartments are to be developed or renovated in four neighborhoods, the majority in Sandtown-Winchester and Irvington, both of which are predominantly poor and black. Some apartments also are being built out of an abandoned building on Montpelier Avenue.

Mr. Henson said the city is attempting to avoid replacing the old, nearly all-black concentrations of poor people that ring downtown Baltimore with new ones. He said he has tried to find more mixed neighborhoods, and also has agreed to eventually offer some of the new Lafayette Courts townhouses for purchase.

"We agreed to try to promote the site for potential homeownership," he said.

But the ACLU lawyers left a five-hour meeting with Mr. Henson, federal housing HUD officials and Housing Authority lawyers last Friday with a different impression.

They said the only offer for homeownership opportunities was limited to a few homes on Aisquith Street because the majority would not meet the city's zoning requirements for minimum lot and width sizes.

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