In the 4 1/2 years since Baltimore and federal housing officials settled a lawsuit by agreeing to provide opportunities for public housing residents to live in mostly white, middle-class neighborhoods, scant headway has been made.
Only about 40 public housing residents have been placed in houses outside poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. Nearly 2,200 special rental certificates and new or renovated units were to be provided throughout the region by 2002, as part of the settlement of a federal civil rights suit over the redevelopment of four high-rise sites.
As a result, most public housing residents still live in the pockets of poverty that the lawsuit sought to begin to break up.
The pace of progress in providing the certificates and units contrasts sharply with the relative swiftness with which the city has torn down its family high-rises. The first of those complexes came down in 1995. The last, Flag House Courts, is scheduled to be demolished Saturday.
A review of documents and interviews with principals in the lawsuit shows that:
A federal audit issued last month criticized the Housing Authority of Baltimore City for failing to adequately administer and oversee a provision of the decree that called for the creation of 1,342 special Section 8 rental certificates to be given to poor people to live outside the inner city. The 40 people who moved to nonsegregated areas were part of this program.
A nonprofit group that was paid $500,014 by the Housing Authority to recruit landlords and counsel tenants for the program was dismissed in November, five months after saying it couldn't meet the program's goals.
None of the 814 new or renovated units to be created with federal funds outside the inner city for home ownership or rental has been started -- and it was not until August that a different nonprofit group was hired for $1.5 million to get the program off the ground.
Not one of the 40 public housing units that were to be bought or built -- in this case with city and state funds -- has been created. The city had planned to take the first step last fall in complying with this provision by purchasing 10 vacant homes in Northeast Baltimore but officially abandoned its plan last month in the face of vigorous community opposition.
`There is an obligation'
Creation of housing opportunities outside the inner city "has moved very slowly," said Anne S. Perkins, the court-appointed special master overseeing the decree that settled a lawsuit filed in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Perkins acknowledged that it has been harder to put in place programs to break up concentrations of poverty than to demolish the high-rises and redevelop the properties with mixed-income communities. But, she said, "There is an obligation to follow through on this agreement."
"This is not easy to do," said Stephen H. Sachs, the former Maryland attorney general who was named late last year to head an advisory council to the court on the case. "I don't believe it's intractable."
Most of the tenants of the demolished complexes have been living in low-rise public housing developments or regular Section 8 or private rental units near the high-rises, according to interviews and documents.
`Time's running out'
Isaac Neal -- a former resident of Lafayette Courts, which in 1995 became the first of the high-rises to be demolished -- has been living with his wife and three children in a Section 8 home in Patterson Park for six years, waiting for the chance to move outside the inner city.
A retired school custodian and one of the original plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit, Neal was in line to move into one of the houses in Northeast until the city pulled the plug on its plans.
"We just want the opportunity to move into better surroundings," Neal said. "We feel like time's running out, but we're not going to be pessimistic. We feel things are going to turn around."
In court papers and interviews, the ACLU and the city express annoyance and frustration over what has become an increasingly expensive legal battle.
In seeking $1.75 million in interim legal fees from the city and federal government for its work on the case, the ACLU complained of a "pattern of delay, inattention and at times recalcitrance in fulfilling decree obligations, especially with regard to the desegregative housing programs."
Susan Goering, the ACLU's executive director, said in an interview that "we respect this is a complex case" but said Mayor Martin O'Malley needed to demonstrate a "real commitment to making the consent decree work."
"It has to happen soon," she said. "We're into the second year of the administration."
City strikes back
For its part, the city's private lawyers, who have been paid $2.4 million, responded in court papers filed last month that the ACLU does not deserve to be awarded legal fees, in part because its actions have harmed the public housing residents it claims to represent.