Trial set on segregation claims against city housing authority

Tenants say agency, HUD limited units to poor areas

November 29, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Nearly nine years after filing a lawsuit, Baltimore public housing tenants will finally get to make their case in court that city and federal officials have fostered a system of racially segregated rental units that have consigned the neediest residents to the most distressed neighborhoods.

The trial begins Monday in federal court here and is expected to last up to a month. It promises to provide a window into the city's discriminatory past and a forum for a legal debate over whether practices of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the past half-century perpetuated that bias.

The stakes in the case - described by lawyers and observers as one of the most significant civil rights actions in the city's history and one of the most important housing cases in the nation in the past 20 years - are potentially as large as the court file, which contains nearly 600 entries and tens of thousands of pages.

Should U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who will hear the case without a jury, find that the housing authority and HUD violated the civil rights of the tenants, he has the authority to specify changes in housing policy after a separate "remedy" proceeding that would follow the trial. The result could be judicial oversight of housing decisions that could last for years.

Tenants' attorneys have not spelled out exactly what changes they would recommend if they prevail at trial. But they say that they want a plan that includes guidelines for site selection for future Housing Authority properties and enhancements to the Section 8 rental certificate program as part of a broad effort to provide "real opportunities" for public housing families to live in prosperous, non-minority areas of Baltimore and its suburbs.

Attorneys for the tenants say it is no accident that the "overwhelming majority" of black public housing residents live in impoverished, minority neighborhoods. They say the city and HUD not only ignored their legal obligation to dismantle the segregated system put in place in the 1930s and 1940s, but preserved it by bowing to political sentiment in continuing to locate new public housing in impoverished minority areas rather than in white, affluent communities.

"The factual record is one of overt, purposeful and long-standing social engineering by the federal government and local officials in support of racially segregated, publicly assisted housing," attorneys for the residents wrote in a pretrial memorandum last month.

The city and HUD counter that concentrations of public housing residents in poor, black neighborhoods are the result of demographics and broad policy decisions, not discrimination. Because the majority of city residents are African-American, most of the neighborhoods available for public housing are black, they argue.

Since the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation was unconstitutional, they say, decisions on where to put public housing have been based not on race, but on the need to provide more low-income housing and revitalize neighborhoods.

"Plaintiffs have no ... evidence that any of the policies, practices or decisions they challenge in their lawsuit were motivated by an actual intent to engage in racial discrimination," attorneys for the city wrote in their pretrial memo.

To bolster that assertion - and another that Baltimore moved swiftly to desegregate its public housing in 1954 - defense attorneys plan to call among their witnesses former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, former housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III and former housing authority chairman Walter Sondheim Jr. Listed as a possible defense witness is Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who as a congressman representing Baltimore County in the 1990s helped lobby HUD on a contentious housing issue.

City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr. said it was "very important" for Baltimore to resolve the issues raised by the case, Thompson et al vs. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development et al.

"To have anything hang over your head for 8 1/2 years is difficult," he said. "I think it's important to move forward."

Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the suit in January 1995 on behalf of 14,000 Baltimore public housing residents, said the case was important not only to tenants but also to the city and the region.

"This case is about providing good homes for good families after seven decades of bad government policy," she said. "Where we live affects everything about how we live, from our schools to our jobs to our health."

A HUD spokeswoman in Washington said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

The case, which experts say is one of the few major civil rights cases coming to trial in the nation, is being closely watched outside Baltimore.

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