Why should the counties do the right thing?

April 21, 1996|By ELISE ARMACOST

THE ACLU and others who support helping some of Baltimore's public-housing families move to the suburbs are asking people who live in the counties to swallow their fears and do the right thing.

To which suburbanites respond: Why should we?

Most are not -- at this point, anyway -- kicking and screaming over this plan, part of a $400 million settlement of a racial-discrimination suit filed by the ACLU against the city housing authority. The ACLU and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development realized last fall, when the settlement was preliminarily announced, that they were going to have to make it more palatable to the counties if they were to win the cooperation of their elected leaders. They have done that, which probably accounts for the subdued reaction.

The settlement limits the number of families that can go to Baltimore County to a barely noticeable 60 a year over three years; it sets the total number of families allowed to move at 1,342, a small fraction of the more than 15,000 families who live in public housing downtown. Families won't be allowed to move if any member has been convicted of a violent or drug-related crime. Millions of dollars -- money for counseling, job training and day care -- are being set aside to ensure that people are given the tools to become self-sufficient.

For suburbanites, these concessions amount to sweetener in medicine. They may make it easier to swallow. But they don't explain why they should have to take the medicine at all.

People in the counties don't understand the genesis of the lawsuit or the history of public housing in Baltimore; many don't realize that poor blacks are where they are today because of calculated segregation. They don't understand why the counties became key players in a suit that did not name them as plaintiffs.

What's in this settlement for them? People in the suburbs are being asked to take a risk -- certainly a much smaller one than they imagine, but a risk nonetheless. They're being asked to trust the government to manage this program better than previous housing experiments. They're being asked to overcome deep-seated fears about the mixture of poverty and race and accept the assurances of social scientists and bureaucrats that this combination won't adversely affect their quality of life.

Even a tiny chance

Why should they do it? Why should people who enjoy good schools, relative safety and a culture they feel comfortable with take even a tiny chance of spoiling all that?

No one -- not HUD, not the ACLU, not state or local elected leaders -- has given them a proper answer. The two arguments used to support moving the poor are valid, but neither speaks to the suburbs.

The first says this is a question of fairness to poor blacks who have been victimized by housing policies that isolated them in ghettoes and denied them the opportunity to move to better neighborhoods. It appeals to us to help right decades of wrongs. But altruism will not sell this policy in the counties. Many county residents moved out and up themselves. They don't understand why everyone can't advance in the world unaided, as they have.

The second argument is that the city will continue to decline and eventually die unless it stops being the region's poorhouse. But many suburbanites don't care if it dies as long as they can stay away from it -- which more and more countians do. What they know of Baltimore is what they hear on the 11 o'clock news or read in the paper, and usually that involves some kind of mayhem.

Ironically, the ACLU settlement unintentionally reinforces these impressions. While the settlement involves new housing opportunities within Baltimore as well as without, the most celebrated aspect is the chance for poor families finally to be able to leave for better neighborhoods elsewhere. The ACLU has steered reporters toward motivated families, desperate to move, who tell of seeing kids gunned down on their front steps; a few who have managed to relocate already say they'll never go back.

What does this say to suburbanites but that the city is best escaped and forgotten?

Urban strategist David Rusk tries to answer the question of why the suburbs should care about the city in ''Baltimore Unbound,'' a compelling proposal for saving Baltimore based on the premise that it will rot unless its poor are dispersed through the metro region -- not just 1,342 families, but many more. He says the suburbs should care because they pay for the cost of dying cities through higher state and federal taxes and through the sacrifice of unique cultural and historical amenities found in cities.

All true, but I doubt that it will move the people who live in neighborhoods like mine. They dislike taxes, but faced with the choice of paying more or dealing with the threat -- real or imagined -- to property values, schools, safety, they will. As for cultural amenities, plenty have never visited Center Stage or the Walters. They can live without these institutions.

It seems possible that implementation of this settlement will occur with little fanfare. So few families are involved, their arrival should be barely noticed. But if this program is to be the first step in a public-housing revolution -- if the ACLU, HUD and David Rusk are right and saving the city means breaking up concentrations of the poor -- then these families cannot be the last. More will have to follow, and more money will have to be spent.

In that case, political leaders are going to have to do a better job of soliciting the cooperation of the suburbs by making the dangers of living near a dying city and a hopeless underclass tangible and relevant to them. As Mr. Rusk notes, elected leaders don't require a clear majority of citizens publicly agreeing to controversial solutions to controversial problems. But they need some.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/21/96

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