Public housing suit tentatively settled City-ACLU accord would give thousand rental certificates

A chance at better homes

Baltimore County executive vows to try to halt agreement

October 13, 1995|By JOANNA DAEMMRICH | JOANNA DAEMMRICH,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Eric Siegel, Patrick Gilbert, Ivan Penn and Kris Antonelli contributed to this article.

Baltimore and the American Civil Liberties Union have come up with a far-reaching agreement to break up the segregation of black families in public housing projects by giving thousands a ,, chance to move to more affluent, largely white neighborhoods throughout the region.

A proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit, which charged the city and federal governments with a 60-year history of segregation in public housing, would give rental certificates to 1,342 families -- about 4,000 people -- to move out of the poor neighborhoods that ring downtown Baltimore.

Reaction to the agreement was swift from Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who vowed to try to stop it.

Baltimore already has demolished the first of its four high-rise complexes and plans to tear down the others in the next few years. The ACLU, acting on behalf of public housing residents, asked a federal court in February to stop the city from replacing the high-rise developments with new segregated pockets of poverty.

But ACLU lawyers and top city officials now have reached a tentative settlement that calls for giving half of the 2,700 tenants from the four high-rise developments a chance to live elsewhere. They would be offered federal certificates to rent private apartments and homes -- but not in poor and minority neighborhoods.

If approved by lawyers for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, the settlement would allow the city to proceed with plans to redevelop Lafayette Courts, a dilapidated complex on the east side that was leveled in August, and Lexington Terrace, which is to be torn down in the spring.

The main goal of the settlement is to break up the nearly all-black concentrations of poverty around downtown Baltimore -- which the ACLU contends the government deliberately created and perpetuated through "systemic racial segregation."

Not all families would be relocated to the suburbs. The settlement would allow the city to rebuild 636 of the 2,729 residences at Lafayette Courts, Flag House Courts, Lexington Terrace and Murphy Homes. Another 300 families would move to older neighborhoods such as Sandtown-Winchester, which is undergoing a much-heralded revitalization.

The immediate effect would be to put to rest a preliminary injunction sought by the ACLU that would have prevented the city from rebuilding the sites of the demolished high-rises.

However, the settlement does not cover allegations of segregation in 8,600 residences in low-rise public housing and some 2,800 scattered units.

Both sides stressed last night that the settlement represented a middle ground.

"The settlement is a compromise," said Deborah S. Byrnes, a lawyer for the city. "Some people will move away and some people will move back."

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the Maryland ACLU, agreed: "It's a blended settlement. It's not all one thing or the other."

For the 1,342 public housing families who would get rental certificates that could be worth up to $9.4 million a year for the next 15 years, HUD is setting up a $2 million program to provide counseling on housing, jobs, schools and transportation, according to a draft of the settlement.

Rental restrictions require that families find housing in integrated or mostly white neighborhoods. Because the federal rental subsidies would be limited for use in "areas of low minority and poverty concentration," the options in the city would be neighborhoods such as Lauraville, Gardenville and Hamilton. Many tenants are expected to move to the suburbs.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke alerted Maryland's delegation to Congress and the county executives of the four neighboring suburbs this week of the pending settlement. Mr. Schmoke declined to comment yesterday on the agreement until it is approved.

It swiftly kindled a raging political debate in the surrounding counties. Several county executives worried about a lack of low-income housing for suburban residents, let alone an influx of poor families from the city.

An indignant Mr. Ruppersberger banged his fingers on a conference table and said, "I resent that very, very much. This is the thanks I get from the mayor for all I've tried to do for the city."

Mr. Ruppersberger, who has championed regional cooperation among governments, said the county would suffer from the relocation of hundreds of families from Baltimore public housing projects. Most would move into the older county communities, such as Riverdale, Tall Trees and Chesapeake Village instead of Ruxton or Glyndon, because that is where landlords accept Section 8 rental certificates, he said.

"Federal officials are coming in once again and dictating the quality of life in our older communities," he said. "I will do everything in my power to see it doesn't happen again."

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