Tenants in city tell of housing problems

Residents of public units allege segregation in suit

But officials deny discrimination

December 04, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After Mary Leighton was told she had to leave the Hollander Ridge public housing complex because it was going to be demolished, a housing authority official took her to see an apartment in another housing complex near the city jail.

"When I got out of the car, there were some teddy bears there," Leighton told a federal judge presiding over a trial yesterday on discrimination claims brought by public housing residents against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. "I asked, `Why?' They said, `Somebody just got killed.'"

Leighton was one of a handful of residents to testify, at times tearfully, about the problems they faced living in public housing in the city and their difficulties in finding suitable housing when the complexes they live in are demolished.

The tenants charge in their lawsuit, filed nearly nine years ago, that city and federal officials have failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing they set up in the 1930s, and have confined residents to the neediest neighborhoods by not replacing demolished units and restricting public housing to poor, black areas troubled by crime and poor schools. They want more opportunities to live in prosperous, integrated areas of the city and its suburbs.

The city and HUD counter that concentrations of public housing residents in impoverished minority neighborhoods stem not from discrimination but from changing demographics in the city and from broad policy decisions. The city will begin presenting its case today.

Leighton, who lived in Hollander Ridge for more than 20 years, never moved into the apartment she was shown in Latrobe Homes. "I was not going to bring my daughter in that area," she said.

Since then, Leighton, 58, has been on an unhappy and seemingly endless odyssey searching for a decent pace to live.

Twice, she had to stay with her sister while her then-teen-age daughter moved in with another relative because she couldn't find suitable housing with her Section 8 rental certificate. In between, she lived briefly in a rat-infested rowhouse that was repossessed by a bank from the property-flipper who was her landlord. Now, she has to move again because the rowhouse she is renting is being sold.

She said that trying to find a home with a Section 8 rental certificate was like being "homeless with a voucher."

"It's so hard to get a decent place with the voucher," she testified yesterday. "You can't live where you want to live. ... A lot of landlords won't accept the voucher."

Isaac Neal, a former school custodian, choked back tears as he described how he and his wife taught his three sons to lie on the floor when they heard gunshots in the eight years they lived in the since-demolished Lafayette Courts complex.

He described life in the rented rowhouse a couple blocks north of Patterson Park that he and his family have lived in since they had to leave Lafayette Courts as marginally better, with the streets filled with drug dealers and prostitutes.

"Young men have been shot and killed on my block," said Neal, 66.

Neal's eldest son, Ishad, 16, said he saw a dead man behind a trash bin as a young boy at Lafayette Courts.

In his new neighborhood, he said, "I had a shotgun pulled on me. It was a student who went to my school. He pointed it at me and the friend I was with."

Schrae Davis, another former resident of Hollander Ridge on the eastern edge of the city, wept as she described racial slurs from residents of the bordering Rosedale neighborhood of Baltimore County and her feelings at learning in the late 1990s that the city was constructing a wrought-iron fence around the complex.

She said she felt that the fence was being built "to keep us out of Rosedale."

On one trip with a neighbor's child to a store in the mostly white neighborhood, she said, "People came out calling the boy a little tar baby and calling us all kinds of names, and get back where we belong."

Davis said that after being forced to leave Hollander Ridge she moved into Chapel NDP Apartments in East Baltimore. Now, Davis, 39, said she has been told she must leave by the end of the year because the complex's new owners will no longer be accepting vouchers.

"I'm upset. I can't find no place to live. ... I'm looking for a house every day," she said.

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