Public housing bias trial opens

Tenants sued city, HUD, claiming '30s segregation system remains in place

Federal action filed 9 years ago

December 02, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Public housing families in Baltimore are as racially isolated now as they were 50 years ago because city and federal officials have failed to dismantle the segregated system they put in place in the 1930s, a lawyer for public housing tenants told a federal judge here yesterday.

At the opening of a trial on discrimination claims brought by public housing residents nearly nine years ago, C. Christopher Brown argued that city and federal housing authorities continued to locate public housing complexes in poor minority areas long after a landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling outlawed segregation.

"Defendants have placed no family public housing units in white residential neighborhoods," said Brown, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the suit on behalf of public housing tenants.

Only one small, 35-unit public housing development is outside the city's urban core north of North Avenue, and complexes that had all black tenants before 1954 are virtually all black today, he said. "We have regressed, not progressed," he said.

Lawyers for the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development countered that the case of the residents was based on long-discarded practices and ignored recent policy changes.

"Plaintiffs have spent an inordinate amount of time re-creating the racial sins of this country," said City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr.

Zollicoffer noted that Baltimore officials abandoned legally sanctioned segregation immediately after the 1954 Supreme Court decision. He said the city would call former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III to testify that decisions they made in the years immediately before the lawsuit was filed in 1995 were not intended to discriminate against African-Americans. "They will explain ... why their actions are good for the city as a whole," he said.

Diane Kelleher, a Justice Department lawyer representing HUD, said the federal housing agency has "made a clean break with its past."

HUD has moved from a policy of providing public housing by funding permanent units in a specific location to one of providing rental certificates that can be used throughout the region, she said. "Many of the policies and programs that plaintiffs complain about have already been fixed by HUD," she said.

The case is being heard without a jury by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who has said he wants to finish testimony in the case before Christmas and will issue a ruling next month. Should Garbis rule for the tenants, a separate "remedy" phase would be held in which he could order substantial changes in federal and local housing policy.

During the opening statements, Garbis' courtroom was packed -- with public housing tenants, law students, journalists and observers.

Later, the tenants' lawyers presented their first two witnesses -- John A. Powell, a lawyer and authority on race and poverty, and Elizabeth K. Julian, who was a HUD deputy general counsel and assistant secretary in the Clinton administration.

Powell testified that there was a pattern of city and HUD officials acquiescing to complaints from whites about the siting of public housing developments, while ignoring similar complaints from blacks. Julian testified that HUD publicly acknowledged in the 1990s that it had helped perpetuate segregation.

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