Housing settlement impacts many ACLU suit: Agreement ending discrimination case may provide path for the nation.

April 11, 1996

PUBLIC HOUSING as we know it may eventually cease to exist under an agreement to settle the ACLU race discrimination suit against the city housing authority. But as hard as it was to hammer out a pact more palatable to suburbanites wary of an inflow of inner-city residents, the tougher job is yet to come -- making it work.

Too much public housing in America looks the same -- buildings that have become warrens for drug dealers, crime, grime and dysfunctional families. Most residents of those buildings are black or brown and poor, very poor. The housing authority here wanted to improve the situation by blowing up high-rise projects and replacing them with more attractive, more secure town houses and garden-style apartments. But the ACLU filed suit, saying to rebuild the housing in any style on the same sites would perpetuate a decades-long pattern of racial segregation.

A compromise has now been reached that U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros says other cities will want to emulate. The city will finish demolishing its remaining four high-rise complexes by 2001. About 1,100 of the 3,200 affected families are expected to remain in Baltimore, including 779 in new mixed-income public housing on the high-rise sites.

The number of families receiving assistance to move to the suburbs will be limited year by year. Rent subsidies only good in middle-class areas will be given to 1,342 families. Another 814 will receive subsidies under a new home ownership program that will be the first in the nation.

City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III says involving the suburbs in the final settlement discussions opened lines of dialogue that had been closed for decades. They must remain open for this pact to work. It must be clear to those who might otherwise be persuaded by political demagogy that this agreement is good for the entire metropolitan area.

Poor people were moving to the suburbs before the ACLU suit. This settlement sets up a method to manage a small portion of that flight, attempts to lessen opportunities for the poor to become reconcentrated, makes home ownership possible for more poor families, establishes a counseling program for first-time homeowners and helps create new mixed-income neighborhoods on city sites now beset by urban blight.

Though the long-time potential is great, this is an innovation of modest size that must not fall victim to fear-mongering. Given time to work, the housing settlement could improve the quality of life for us all.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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