THE DISCLOSURE last week that a dozen homes have been selected to give a few public housing tenants in Baltimore the opportunity to move out of the impoverished inner city as part of a court decree raises two related questions.
First, have the demographics of the neighborhoods in which the homes will be located changed significantly since the 1990 census, from which data were used to identify eligible communities: those that were (a) predominantly white and (b) only slightly poor.
Second, to what extent does it matter if they have?
The first question is easier to answer than the second.
Under the terms of a 1996 consent decree to settle a housing discrimination lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development agreed to create 40 new or renovated public housing units in areas of Baltimore that had minority populations of less than 26 percent and poverty rates below 10 percent, based on data from the 1990 census.
The decree identified 25 census tracts in the city - out of 200 - that met those criteria.
(It also identified dozens of tracts in Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Queen Anne's counties as potential spots for nearly 2,200 rental certificates and new or renovated housing units, but that's another story).
If the same criteria were used with data from the 2000 census, only 10 of those 25 tracts would qualify. Only one new tract, in South Baltimore, would be added to the list, though a couple more come close.
Of the 15 tracts that would not qualify, most would not make the cut because of a combination of increased minority populations and increased poverty rates; a couple would not make the cut because of increased poverty alone.
As outlined by Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano last week at a meeting of Northeast Baltimore community leaders and in a subsequent interview, a dozen HUD-foreclosed houses in as many neighborhoods will be bought and renovated with state and federal dollars by the nonprofit St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center and rented to public housing tenants. Eight more single-family houses will be selected soon.
Seven of the houses will be located in Northeast, where in the fall of 2000 unhappy residents forced the city to abandon a proposal to buy 10 houses for public housing residents and develop its current plan, which calls for St. Ambrose, and not the housing authority, to manage the properties.
Another 20 units will be located in apartment buildings throughout the city: 11 in the Westover Manor complex in West Hills in Southwest Baltimore, which is not in one of the 25 tracts named in the consent decree but which was agreed to by the ACLU, and the other nine at sites to be named later.
For a couple of the dozen neighborhoods in which single-family homes are to be located, racial makeup and poverty were little altered from the last census. Mount Washington, for example, had 90 percent white population and a 2.8 percent poverty rate in 1990, and 85 percent white population and 6.1 percent poverty rate in 2000.
Other neighborhoods - including three in Northeast - showed more drastic change. In Arcadia, white population dropped from 85 percent to 54 percent, while poverty was little changed, going from 5.5 percent to 6.1 percent. In Cedmont, white population went from 84 percent to 57 percent, while the poverty rate rose from 4.3 to 21.4 percent. And in Waltherson, white population declined from 93 percent to 52 percent, while the poverty rate more than doubled, from 6 percent to 12.3 percent.
The consent decree allows the list of census tracts to be amended using new data by the agreement of parties to the lawsuit - and some residents of Northeast wonder why updated numbers aren't being taken into consideration.
These residents - many of whom worry that Northeast will eventually get more than seven houses - argue that if population and poverty numbers are going to be used to decide where to locate public housing residents, it makes sense to use the most up-to-date figures.
"They should use the most current numbers," said Lisa J. Smith, an attorney and board member of Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville Inc. "It would be one thing if they already had the plan in place. But they're just starting out."
Graziano acknowledges the change in demographics is "a point we could debate." But he says seven houses spread through several neighborhoods - down from a total of 28 eventually slated for the area under the previous plan - are not enough to affect the area.
Six years after the consent decree was signed, Graziano says it's time to comply with its terms and move on to what he says ultimately are more important issues to the community, such as housing code enforcement and spot vacancies. "I want to get this done," he said.