Judge OKs accord to relocate poor 2,000 public-housing families would move to middle-class areas

June 26, 1996|By James Bock | James Bock,SUN STAFF

In a move that changes the way the Baltimore region houses some of its poor, a federal judge approved an agreement yesterday to enable more than 2,000 black Baltimore public-housing families to move to mostly white, middle-class areas over the next six years.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis also ordered that a special master be named to oversee the agreement and to organize a citizen advisory panel. The agreement has aroused considerable suburban opposition, particularly in eastern Baltimore County.

The accord commits $300 million in federal funds to allow Baltimore to become the nation's first city to demolish all its public-housing high-rises. It provides for relocation of 3,200 families, two-thirds in middle-class neighborhoods.

The first moves to the suburbs under the agreement probably won't occur until next year. A nonprofit agency is to be selected within six months to screen and counsel tenants, and to recruit landlords for the program.

The agreement is a partial settlement of a desegregation lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland on behalf of black public-housing tenants. The suit accused Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development of illegally segregating black families for decades, which the defendants deny.

The settlement "puts on the table an important direction for public policy," Stuart Comstock-Gay, ACLU executive director, said yesterday. "It is an important statement about government's responsibility when it intentionally segregates. This is at least a step toward desegregation and a step toward providing real opportunity for public-housing residents."

Doris Tinsley, a public-housing tenant and plaintiff in the suit, said the legal battle taught her that "anything I don't like I can fight. I don't have to accept things the way they are."

Despite suburban opposition, the agreement "can work, but it's going to take work on both sides," Tinsley said. "People in the counties have to give us a chance, and we as people coming into their communities have to prove we are responsible and positive people -- and can become independent people if they allow us the space and opportunity to do so."

But Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Bal-timore County Republican, said the agreement "sends out the wrong message. The message of this program is, government will give you a really nice place in a really nice neighborhood without your doing anything."

Ehrlich said the ACLU and the Clinton administration used the courts to make an end run around Congress and set housing policy.

Gary Adams, president of the Greater Rosedale Community Council, said the agreement won't work because "you can pick up people and move them anyplace you want, but you're not going to change that person. That change can only come from within."

Garbis received more than 1,200 letters of opposition to the agreement. He said some opposition was based on racial bias, but that most reflected residents' "sincerely held concerns" about the effect of subsidized tenants moving into their neighborhoods.

He said the special master, whose duties were not defined in the order, would meet with neighborhood groups. The order did not say when the special master would be named.

Harry S. Johnson, a lawyer for the city, said Baltimore wanted to influence the choice of a special master and his or her duties.

"We think the people who run the housing authority should run the housing authority, not someone appointed by a federal judge," he said.

The housing settlement will test the theory that low-income families are more likely to prosper if they are not surrounded by poverty. The accord commits the city to put mixed-income housing on three high-rise sites; to offer 1,342 public-housing tenants rental subsidies for use only in middle-class areas; and to give 814 others the chance to become homeowners.

Most city neighborhoods would not qualify for the "housing mobility" part of the agreement. Families can move only to areas with less than 26 percent minority population, a poverty rate under 10 percent and less than 5 percent subsidized housing. No family will be forced to move to the suburbs.

Garbis said that while some residents of public-housing high-rises "bear responsibility for the transformation of their neighborhoods into places unfit for decent people," the vast majority do not. He urged suburbanites to provide them "the same kind of personal support that is willingly provided to those who immigrate from foreign countries."

Applicants for rent subsidies will be screened for criminal records and drug abuse. HUD has committed $3.4 million to recruit landlords and to offer families counseling.

Pub Date: 6/26/96

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