Move is focus of public housing case

Displaced tenants sent to a black neighborhood instead of Canton in '90s

December 14, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

When city officials had to find new homes for residents displaced by a shuttered public housing complex, they initially considered converting a vacant school in Canton in Southeast Baltimore.

But they finally decided on Johnston Square on the east side, buying and rehabilitating 10 abandoned rowhouses.

How and why the city decided in the early 1990s to put public housing in an almost all-black neighborhood and not a mostly white one has become one of the focal points in the trial in federal court here on discrimination claims brought by public housing residents against the city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The decision also encapsulates issues being raised by the trial, which enters its third, and potentially most intense, week tomorrow -- and illustrates the often complex mix of fact and motive that the case presents.

Residents, represented by lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, contend that the Johnston Square choice was part of a pattern by the city and HUD to perpetuate a segregated system they first put in place in the 1930s, in part by continually placing public housing in poor minority areas.

Because the city's determination not to put public housing on the site of the old Hampstead Hills Elementary School (also known as School 47) occurred after a heated community meeting, public housing residents argue that HUD and the city's housing authority "capitulated to race-based opposition to relocation."

In court papers filed in connection with the lawsuit, initiated nearly nine years ago, they contend that the rowhouses on East Preston Street in Johnston Square, which cost an average of $166,000 each to buy and renovate, never should have been approved because they were in an "all-black, high-crime, highly violent neighborhood."

City lawyers counter that the accusation of giving in to white opposition is "inflammatory" and "simply not supported with evidence that [city officials] made these decisions based on an intent to engage in racial discrimination."

The city plans to call former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III this week in an attempt to demonstrate that the decision regarding School 47 and others were dictated by a host of policy considerations, not race.

The decision involved the city's first attempts to replace units at the 300-unit Fairfield Homes complex near Brooklyn, which was closed in 1987 and demolished 10 years later. The great bulk of the replacement units wound up being located at Pleasant View Gardens and The Terraces -- part of a complex agreement negotiated between the residents and the city and HUD that allowed for the demolished high-rise sites to be redeveloped while remaining issues in the case continued to be litigated.

In testimony that ended last week, one of HUD's key witnesses said the agency repeatedly prodded the city to locate one-third of the Fairfield replacement homes in areas with a lower percentage of minorities than the city-wide average. William Tamburrino, the director of public housing for HUD's Baltimore office, said the agency approved the Preston Street sites because they were within the two-thirds of the units allowed to be put in areas with high concentrations of minorities.

Tamburrino also testified that "there was some debate within HUD" about the desirability of converting School 47 into 24 one- and two-bedroom low-income units because of design problems.

Under cross-examination by residents' attorney Barbara A. Samuels, Tamburrino acknowledged that he had no problem with the location of School 47 and that a new building could have been built on the site to address his design concerns.

Samuels read a letter from then-city Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn to HUD in which Hearn asked for a waiver of regulations to allow all the Fairfield replacement units to be placed in minority neighborhoods. Hearn wrote that the community was "adamantly opposed" to putting low-income housing on the site and noted that such opposition was "indicative of the attitude towards public housing in every non-impacted [white] neighborhood."

Community opposition crystallized at a meeting at the new Hampstead Hills Elementary School on Eastern Avenue across from Patterson Park on a Monday evening in mid-August of 1992 -- 2 1/2 years before residents filed their lawsuit.

An account of the meeting was the lead story in that week's edition of The East Baltimore Guide. "School #47 Housing Proposal Roundly Rejected," the headline read. "Meeting Adjourned as 700 Angry Residents Shout Down City Officials."

The story noted that many residents were drawn by a flier distributed in the neighborhood in the days before the meeting that erroneously said the city wanted to build a low-income high-rise building on the site. It made no mention of race.

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