Managing the housing settlement Special master: Appointee would be judge's 'eyes and ears' to implement regional remedy.

April 16, 1996

THE LIST OF those who believe the federal courts should appoint a special master to help carry out the public housing settlement involving Baltimore and the nearby counties is fairly long: Among them, U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and other county leaders.

The only person whose opinion really counts, however, is that of U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. He must ultimately decide whether to accept the plan that would enable some 2,000 families to move from public housing projects in Baltimore to subsidized units elsewhere in the city and suburbs. The judge may also weigh the appointment of a master to be his "eyes and ears" to implement this complex, and politically charged, arrangement.

The intent of this agreement is to break up the concentration of poor black residents in projects downtown. This case has national implications: Baltimore would become the first city to systematically dismantle its public housing towers -- which may have achieved HUD's objective to provide affordable housing but failed abysmally to provide safe or decent housing. The outcome of this initiative also carries huge implications locally, in terms of crafting regional solutions to regional problems.

The only name conspicuously absent from those who have enthusiastically endorsed appointment of a master is city Housing Director Daniel P. Henson III, although his office would benefit as much as any from the orderly implementation of this agreement.

Local history shows the need for a master. Look at the haphazard transfer of numerous city public housing tenants to Patterson Park, which shifted poverty from one neighborhood to another. Special masters have also helped implement similar settlements in the U.S., including an even more complex deal in eastern Texas that involves 36 counties.

The cost of a master is minuscule next to HUD's $300 million investment. An appointee from outside the area, without allegiance to the city, suburbs or American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, might work best. First, however, Judge Garbis has to create this post. Precedent, provincialism and politics would recommend it.

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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