Schmoke defends housing practices

Former mayor identifies affordability, not race, as principal concern

December 19, 2003|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke defended in federal court yesterday his administration's practice of building and renovating low-income housing in distressed minority communities, saying it was a way to help poor people, not discriminate against them.

Testifying during the third week of a trial on claims of racial bias brought by public housing residents against the city and the federal government, Schmoke said the racial makeup of the neighborhoods where the housing was located was not a principal concern.

"What I was thinking about was providing decent and affordable housing, not changing the racial composition of neighborhoods," said Schmoke, who was mayor from 1987 to 1999 and is now dean of the Howard University School of Law.

During four hours of wide-ranging testimony, Schmoke described the difficulties of providing decent housing and maintaining neighborhoods in a time of widespread middle-class abandonment of the city.

He also criticized some public officials, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and then-Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., for siding with often racially hostile sentiments of eastern Baltimore County residents in opposing a program to move public housing residents to the suburbs and in pushing for a fence around the Hollander Ridge public housing complex on the city-county line.

But he vigorously denied that those sentiments played a role in his decision to eventually support the construction of the fence and to create senior citizen public housing rather than family public housing at Hollander Ridge.

"They were not my constituents," he said. "I didn't have to pander to them for votes."

Allegations

In their lawsuit filed in 1995, the last year of the second of Schmoke's three terms as mayor, public housing residents accused the city and the federal government of perpetuating the segregated system they put in place in the 1930s by continually placing public housing units in poor, black areas.

The city and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counter that concentrations of public housing residents in poor, black areas are the result of the city's changing demographics and said policy decisions were based on a wide range of factors, not racial bias.

The appearance of Schmoke, Baltimore's first elected black mayor, followed testimony this week by former city housing Commissioners Daniel P. Henson III and M.J. "Jay" Brodie, who also strongly denied that their policies were designed to discriminate against public housing residents.

The city will conclude its defense today. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who is hearing the case without a jury, has scheduled closing arguments for Monday and Tuesday and has said he will issue a ruling next month.

Under cross-examination by C. Christopher Brown, the general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which is representing the residents, Schmoke was asked about a legal brief he co-authored last year and filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases.

Noting that the brief said in part that "Residential segregation concentrates poverty and adversely affects access to jobs, financial capital, health care and education," Brown asked whether government officials should do everything they could to break down segregation.

"I saw it as our goal to provide decent and affordable opportunities regardless of where they were in the city," Schmoke said.

Fairfield Homes

Schmoke defended his administration's decision to abandon plans to convert to public housing a vacant school in Canton, a primarily white area, in favor of renovating rowhouses in all-black Johnston Square as replacement housing for residents of the Fairfield Homes complex in a Baltimore industrial area. Public housing residents contend that the decision was an example of racially biased siting of public housing.

Schmoke said the decision and the subsequent demolition of the school allowed residents of Canton to get a much-desired playground, while the former Fairfield Homes residents got better housing than they had in the past.

"Yes, [Johnston Square] was an all-black neighborhood," Schmoke said. "It was an area we were trying to uplift, not degrade."

Schmoke also denied that his administration's demolition of hundreds of individual, single-family homes scattered in neighborhoods throughout the city was an attempt to reduce the availability of housing for poor, black families.

He said most were too decrepit to renovate economically and the purpose of the demolitions was "to enhance a neighborhood, not to restrict the ability of people to get housing."

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