Housing lawsuit nearing a close

Judge says he can't order putting city's public units in suburbs as a remedy

HUD, Baltimore agency sued

ACLU case seeks to prove long-term discrimination

December 23, 2003|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

The city's segregated pockets of concentrated poverty can be erased only by extending public housing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, a U.S. District judge declared yesterday.

However, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis -- who is hearing a lawsuit filed in 1995 by public housing tenants claiming that Baltimore and federal housing policies have resulted in racial discrimination -- indicated that because those suburban counties are not part of the suit, such a remedy would be difficult to accomplish.

Garbis made his remark as lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the tenants, said they wanted a "metro-wide remedy" if they win their racial and economic discrimination suit against the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"If you are going to seek [regionalization], you are not going to get it from the city," Garbis said, meaning that the city could not impose such measures on other jurisdictions. The judge noted demographic data that show 66 percent of the city population is African-American and poor. It is ringed by Baltimore County, which is much wealthier and has a population that is 18 percent African American.

Closing arguments continue today, and Garbis has said he will rule on the case next month.

Yesterday's closing arguments, which came after three weeks of testimony, suggested that the ACLU may be fighting an uphill battle in its effort to win the class action lawsuit on behalf of 14,000 Baltimore public housing tenants.

Garbis repeatedly signaled that ACLU lawyers must do a better job proving that racial and economic segregation in Baltimore's public housing exist as a result of deliberate discriminatory actions by the city housing authority and HUD.

To prove that, ACLU lawyers would have to demonstrate a continuing pattern of biased decision-making from the late 1930s to the present day.

During that span, Baltimore built a number of public housing projects, which were initially strictly segregated. Even after that policy was changed in the 1950s, true or lasting integration seldom occurred.

The ACLU suit argues this was due to bigoted decision-making; the city and HUD blame demographic shifts in various neighborhoods that changed the city's overall racial and economic makeup.

HUD negotiated out-of-court settlements in comparable cases in other parts of the country under the Clinton administration. Since then, Congress has steadily cut funding for public housing. As a result, if the ACLU were to win, a judge would have a hard time prescribing remedies -- such as increasing the housing supply -- that realistically could be funded.

The case has an added legal complication because a year after the suit was filed in 1995, the city and HUD negotiated a partial consent decree with the ACLU meant to settle it. The decree has guided much of the city housing authority's operation since. For example, four aging and crime-ridden high-rise complexes were demolished and in their place, mixed-income developments were built.

Yesterday, Garbis expressed uneasiness about reopening matters that were presumed to have been resolved by the partial consent decree. But, he said, "If I'm not going to look at the high-rises, then I'll cut the heart of [the tenants'] case."

The closing arguments were unusual: Instead of separate summations, the judge insisted on a re-examination of all key points as ACLU lawyers made their arguments. This allowed him, as well as HUD and city lawyers, to question assertions by the plaintiffs. It also led to confrontations between the judge and ACLU lawyer Susan Podolsky.

A tense moment occurred when Podolsky implied that former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke succumbed to pressure from white Baltimore County residents when he decided to build a $350,000 fence around Rosedale's Hollander Ridge units. She argued that the fence was built to segregate the since-demolished housing development.

Garbis angrily countered that decision-making was more complicated than that and that Schmoke had also angered Rosedale whites. He said that by Podolsky's logic, "Mayor Schmoke was a racist when he disagreed with the rednecks."

"Be careful about how you throw this word `racist' around," the judge admonished Podolsky.

"Yes, sir," she replied.

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