Court weighs housing plan Settlement proposed to let city poor move to suburbs

'We are human beings'

Plaintiffs, foes passionately air views in courtroom

June 01, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

Black and white, city dweller and suburbanite, they came to federal court yesterday to talk about the American Dream.

The occasion was a hearing to assess the fairness of a proposed settlement that would enable more than 2,100 black Baltimore families to move from public housing to mostly white, middle-class suburbs over the next six years.

But the six-hour session turned into a debate about family and neighborhood, opportunity and work that had as much raw emotion as legalese.

Isaac Neal, 59, a former resident of the demolished Lafayette Courts public-housing high-rise complex, choked back tears as he spoke of how insulted he felt by suburban opposition to the plan.

"I'd like your honor and the county people to understand we are human beings," said Neal, a plaintiff in the suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bonnie Reville, 53, of Lutherville also fought off tears as she expressed her frustration that "I can barely afford to meet my mortgage payment now, and I resent tremendously my taxes going to support somebody else."

"You don't solve the problems by moving them," she said. "Everybody in this country has the opportunity to work hard and move where they can afford to live."

Advocates of the plan said living in better neighborhoods would benefit public-housing families, affording them more jobs, better schools and safer streets. Opponents feared an influx of poor people would hurt their neighborhoods, driving down property values and spreading crime.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis left little doubt that he would approve the proposed settlement, as expected. He indicated that he might appoint a special master to oversee the plan.

"We've done a wonderful job to bring into this country Russians from Odessa, Poles from Warsaw, to make them a home and improve their lives," the judge said. "I think we can find a way to do the same for Americans from Lafayette Courts and Murphy Homes."

The judge was only obligated to hear from members of the plaintiff class, none of whom objected to the plan. But he chose to make the hearing a forum for community concerns. About 50 people plus several lawyers attended.

Garbis said he received 100 letters and more than 1,000 signatures on petitions about the plan, which would settle part of a desegregation lawsuit brought against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year. About 1,500 people rallied against the plan last month in Dundalk, although no more than 60 families a year could use special rent subsidies to move to Baltimore County.

To avoid concentrating poor blacks in other neighborhoods, the proposed settlement would allow families to move only to areas with less than 26 percent minority population, a poverty rate under 10 percent and no more than 5 percent subsidized housing.

Kale Williams, who ran a similar plan that has resettled 6,500 poor black families in the Chicago area, testified that suburban property values did not decline nor did crime increase. He said more children of families who moved to the suburbs went to college and got good jobs than those who stayed in the city.

Corinthia Harrell, a former public-housing resident who moved to Howard County this year with a rent subsidy, said she plans to study nursing. And she said little things are already making big changes for her 9-year-old daughter, LaShawna, who now can safely play outside and is learning a musical instrument at school.

But Susan Levickas, a sales representative from Southwest Baltimore, said the proposed settlement sent an un-American message: "Sit back, do nothing, don't contribute, and you'll be taken care of and rewarded with all the things everyone else works and saves all their lives to attain."

Levickas said that she was a high school dropout and teen-age mother, but that she graduated from college by dint of her own effort. "I do not wish to support other people's mistakes," she said.

At the end of the hearing, Donald B. Verrilli, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, urged opponents to see public-housing tenants not as "problems" but as people. He asked them to remember Corinthia Harrell's aspirations for herself and her daughter.

"I hope that helps you see that she is just like you," he said. "And when you see 9-year-old LaShawna, I hope you don't see a 'problem.' "

Pub Date: 6/01/96

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