ACLU seeks to stop plan for housing

March 25, 1995|By Michael James | Michael James,Sun Staff Writer

Saying they are trying to stop racially segregated housing in Baltimore, lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge yesterday to block the city's plans to build several new subsidized housing projects.

The new projects, which would take the place of six dilapidated high-rise towers that are slated for demolition, are all planned in areas of urban blight and would simply perpetuate Baltimore's low-income housing woes, the ACLU contended.

Officials at the ACLU stressed yesterday that they are not opposed -- and in fact they support -- the tearing down of the high-rises. The key issue, they said, is whether the residents of those high-rises will be moving to better housing opportunities.

"Bricks and mortar, once erected, remain for generations," said the motion for injunction, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. "If [housing officials] are allowed to proceed with their plans, the resulting segregation in Baltimore's public housing will be irreversible."

The ACLU argued that residents of the high-rises -- many living in extreme poverty with the average income being roughly $6,000 -- have for decades been denied their constitutional right to fair housing.

Replacement housing should provide the residents with a chance to move to racially and economically diverse neighborhoods, but the proposed new sites would "simply move them to more dangerous areas, from the frying pan into the fire," said ACLU lawyer Barbara Samuels.

The motion, brought before Judge Marvin J. Garbis, was hotly contested by Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. A hearing will be held in federal court in about three weeks.

"All of a sudden, the ACLU is our land planner," Mr. Henson said. "This is a plan that everyone participated in, that hundreds of people had input on, and then at the last second the ACLU decides it's just not pure enough for them."

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Courts towers as early as May, the first stage in an ambitious $293 million program to overhaul the four most worn and outdated public housing developments.

The housing officials have proposed building new low-rise units on the site of Lafayette Courts, one of many decisions disputed by the ACLU. The new site would be "crammed" with 210 units and be fully enclosed by a fence with a guard shack, Ms. Samuels said.

The ACLU also opposed moving residents to other areas that are almost entirely populated by poverty-stricken blacks.

"That kind of isolation from the economic mainstream is what's perpetuating poverty, generation after generation," Ms. Samuels said. "We would not oppose rebuilding on the sites as long as it brought some economic and racial diversity to the neighborhood."

Mr. Henson argued that rebuilding in poor sections of the city helps to rekindle neighborhoods.

"It's an opportunity for us to replace vacant houses with occupied houses and it's a way for us to rebuild the community," Mr. Henson said. "A few lawyers at ACLU are saying that they are smarter than the rest of the town."

The ACLU officials said they opted to file the motion yesterday in part because city construction contracts for many of the proposed developments are scheduled to be awarded May 15.

In January, they had filed suit in federal court claiming that the city's housing plans reflected a "complete disregard" for the constitutional rights of tenants. The group said that racial segregation has existed in Baltimore since the high-rises came on the scene in 1954.

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