Schmoke role in housing assailed

In suit vs. city and HUD, ACLU says former mayor continued segregation

Judge demands evidence

December 24, 2003|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's failure to pursue integration in public housing continued the segregated practices that existed before 1954, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday.

"There is no way this court can find that segregation has been eradicated. Each period built on the previous period," Susan Podolsky told U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis at the end of a three-week trial. The ACLU represents 14,000 tenants who accuse the city and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of practicing systematic and continuous discrimination since the late 1930s.

Because the suit, filed in 1995, alleges that bigoted policies and practices were deliberate, it was important for Podolsky to overcome statute of limitation problems caused by including Schmoke, Baltimore's first elected African-American mayor.

"It has to be tied up, and I want you to tie it up as best you can," Garbis told Podolsky.

But when Garbis asked what more the Schmoke administration should have done, Podolsky's only response was: "It should have done something."

Her attempts at linkage underscored a crucial weakness in the ACLU case. During Schmoke's 12-year administration, nearly all public housing units were constructed under the terms of a partial consent decree that the city and HUD struck with the ACLU.

For that reason, when Garbis rules on the case next month, he has to decide whether to include those units. A decision to exclude would "cut the heart of [the tenants'] case," he has said.

Under questioning, Podolsky said that Schmoke's failure to select more public housing sites also constituted discriminatory action.

"In that case," the judge deadpanned, turning to City Solicitor Thurman W. Zollicoffer Jr., "I want to address every property where the city didn't build public housing.

"We start with Sherwood Gardens," he continued, referring to the wealthy Guilford neighborhood's showpiece. "We go on from there."

That was a rare moment of levity during closing arguments that contained several terse exchanges between the judge and Podolsky.

"Give me some evidence," Garbis pleaded repeatedly. "I'm trying to find the basis of your claim."

Garbis said there was no dispute that Baltimore's World War II housing projects were racially segregated, as were most residential neighborhoods. The dispute is over what happened after 1954, when the housing authority ended public housing segregation.

William F. Ryan Jr., a lawyer for the city, argued that the housing authority vigorously tried to integrate its complexes. But their tenant population and locations quickly re-segregated as approximately 300,000 whites fled to the surrounding counties, creating a majority black city.

Garbis appeared to empathize with that contention. He noted that more recently, "a very huge number of African-Americans of middle-class means have voted with their feet" and moved out of the city.

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