Housing battle may land in court County, ACLU still far apart on relocating families

November 18, 1995|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich and John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

Baltimore County could be heading toward a courtroom showdown over a proposal to allow hundreds of public housing families to move from the inner city to the suburbs.

Negotiations to end suburban opposition to the proposal are moving very slowly and may not succeed, county and American Civil Liberties Union officials said yesterday.

Asked whether there is a good chance the talks will produce changes to satisfy his objections, Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III said, "At this point, no."

Private attorneys hired by the county are researching whether legal action could block the proposal. "That's where it looks like it's headed," if the negotiations don't work, he said.

The proposal is designed to settle an ACLU housing discrimination suit against the city. Residents in public housing projects that are being demolished should not be relocated downtown, the suit contends, because that would perpetuate a 60-year pattern of racial segregation.

A proposed settlement would use federal rent subsidies to help 1,342 families find homes in more affluent, less segregated neighborhoods.

Mr. Ruppersberger has complained loudly about the proposed settlement, noting that the county already is battling poverty and blight in older neighborhoods. Leaders of Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties have been sympathetic to that complaint, but have not mounted the active opposition that Baltimore County has.

Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III said last night that he still is optimistic about reaching an agreement with suburban leaders. He said that he had been told U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros wanted to have changes to the settlement in place by the end of next week.

"I'm doing my best to keep the lines of communication open," Mr. Henson said, declining to discuss possible changes in the settlement. He has said he does not expect them to be sweeping.

But Michael H. Davis, Mr. Ruppersberger's top aide, said he became frustrated and walked out of a meeting Thursday in Towson. "It was the same old mumbo jumbo," he said, referring to arguments made by lawyers for Baltimore and the ACLU.

The Towson meeting was the second negotiating session of the week. The first was in Washington on Tuesday, when U.S. Justice Department lawyers met with county officials and their private attorneys from the Washington firm of Williams and Connelly.

"This is still very preliminary, Baltimore County attorney Virginia W. Barnhart said, adding that specific changes to the settlement have not been discussed yet.

To win the county's backing, the proposal would "have to protect the county's interests in a much more significant way," she said. So far, the talks have merely tried to identify areas of discussion, she added.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the ACLU in Maryland, painted a similar picture. He attended Thursday's meeting and said no specific remedies were discussed.

"What we can do with [the proposed settlement] and the county's interests is a little bit unclear," he said. "If we can talk this out some way, it's a good thing. Maybe we can't. It's fair to say we're not very close."

Proponents of the settlement have warned that if it comes apart, and the ACLU suit goes to trial, a federal judge could order a much larger group of public housing residents moved to the suburbs.

Meanwhile, efforts to block the settlement in Congress, by withholding funding for the rent subsidies, have stalled.

Yesterday, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County, who had attempted to have the move blocked in the federal housing budget bill, reiterated that he will try again. President Clinton is expected to veto the bill, which was completed Thursday, and the measure would go back to the House-Senate conference committee if the veto is not overridden.

"I am disappointed but not disheartened," the Republican said of the committee's failure to consider his provision. Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the senior Republican House member in the conference committee, has promised to bring up the provision if the spending bill comes back to the conference.

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