City's plan for housing is revised

New approach aims to help the poor buy middle-class homes

Section 8 renters targeted

Mayor tries to avoid another court fight over consent decree

January 07, 2001|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Abandoning the vigorously opposed plan to buy 10 vacant houses in Northeast Baltimore and rent them to poor families, the city is developing what Mayor Martin O'Malley describes as a new "good faith" approach to comply with a court decree aimed at breaking up pockets of poverty.

In a letter last week, the city formally notified the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the owner of the houses, that it was no longer interested in buying the properties.

Instead, O'Malley says the city wants to identify former public housing tenants using subsidies to rent houses in white, middle-class neighborhoods and help them buy their homes.

O'Malley remains highly critical of the consent decree, negotiated four years ago by the administration of his predecessor to settle a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city and HUD, calling it "outmoded" and characterizing a key element of the agreement as nonsense.

But the mayor says he wants to avoid a renewed court fight over the complex decree, designed to give residents of demolished high- rises the opportunity to move out of impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods.

"Part of this is showing good faith that we're trying to comply," O'Malley said last week. "I'm trying to find any way I can not to go back to court."

ACLU attorney Barbara Samuels says the organization is open to suggestions but declined to comment on the city's new approach until it was presented to her.

"I think it's probably not productive for us to discuss a plan we haven't seen," she said. "That's usually not a way of conducting negotiations that leads to an agreement or a result."

But Samuels notes that the consent decree calls for the creation of 40 public housing units with city and state funds as well as the use of Section 8 rental subsidies for home ownership in "non-impacted" areas, defined as having minority populations of less than 26 percent and poverty rates under 10 percent. "He was already supposed to be doing that, but hasn't done it," she said.

Northeast Baltimore leaders and residents, still irked that the plan for the 10 houses was developed in the fall with no community input, say they would embrace a program that would boost home ownership in their neighborhoods, which they say have begun to struggle against signs of blight and decay.

"Any time you can get someone to buy rather than rent, it makes a real investment in the community," said Karen Newell, who lives next door to one of the 10 houses.

Acknowledging a great deal of resentment and misunderstanding over the city's plan in the fall, Naomi Benyowitz, executive director of the umbrella HARBEL organization, which serves the Harford Road-Belair Road community, now sounds a conciliatory note.

"The communities are very interested in welcoming new families in the area and want to be part of the process," she said.

The resentment boiled over at an early October meeting at Hamilton Middle School, where hundreds of angry residents shouted down housing officials trying to explain the plan to buy the 10 houses.

O'Malley made a late entrance and calmed the crowd by saying the city would go to court to try to amend the consent decree.

O'Malley says that is still an option but added, "I'm confident there's some way we can abide by the consent decree, however outmoded it is to the current demographic realities of our neighborhoods."

The mayor contends that many city neighborhoods, including some in the Northeast, have become more impoverished since the ACLU filed its suit in 1995. He also says the city is analyzing where hundreds of Section 8 rental certificates given to residents of demolished public housing high rises are being used, saying he believes many of them are in the "non- impacted" areas mentioned in the consent decree.

O'Malley is most frustrated by the consent decree's requirement to move former public housing residents to middle-class neighborhoods that have fewer than 26 percent minorities.

"I don't buy the argument that to live in a neighborhood more than 26 percent African-American is a bad neighborhood," he said. "That's bull--."

His frustration is shared by Councilwoman Lois A. Garey, whose district includes parts of the Northeast.

"I have a real problem with the basic premise of the decree, that wealthier minority neighborhoods can't nurture public housing residents," she said. "I know that's changing history."

The ACLU's Samuels says the requirement was put in the decree because "middle-class black neighborhoods already bear a disproportionate number of Section 8 vouchers."

By putting more Section 8 families in those neighborhoods, she said, "you're adding to the concentration of poverty that everyone is saying is a problem."

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