Judge now must sort housing evidence

Umpiring the past is just one task in deciding city segregation lawsuit

December 27, 2003|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

The difficulty is that the prism of time changes perceptions, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said.

He heard three weeks of conflicting testimony at a federal trial, which ended Tuesday, where public housing tenants accused the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development of maintaining segregated public housing units since the late 1930s.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of 14,000 tenants, wants Garbis to order unspecified remedies to rectify the situation.

The 67-year-old veteran judge has promised to rule in the case next month.

With nearly 100 cardboard boxes of exhibits filling his courtroom, Garbis said there was no doubt that Baltimore's public housing had been segregated until 1954, just like most of its residential neighborhoods.

However, he went on to pose questions to ACLU lawyers that illustrated how the same actions are viewed differently in different eras.

If the suit's allegations of subsequent unbroken segregation were true, Garbis said, why had a local civil rights foundation honored the city housing authority in 1955 for "voluntary and effective integration in public housing occupancy?"

And what was he to make of the fact that one of the foundation's officers, Jack L. Levin, was a key leader in the Maryland ACLU when the award was made?

"You're making accusations against people, and I've got to judge them," Garbis told the lawyers, referring to past public housing decision-makers. "But I've got to judge them according to their time. That's only fair."

Umpiring the past is only one of Garbis' challenges in coming days as he tries to determine whether Baltimore's current public housing segregation is a result of deliberate and systematic governmental policies or merely a consequence of the city's declining white population since the 1950s.

Should Garbis rule in favor of the tenants, he would also have to address a remedy.

Garbis "has very great latitude if he finds against the city," says Neal M. Janey, a former judge and city solicitor who now is in private practice.

However, Garbis has no influence over a turnaround that has occurred in federal public housing policy since the ACLU suit was filed in 1995.

Since then, funding for traditional public housing has dried up, as Congress has made rehabilitation of old complexes nearly impossible. Instead, funding preference has shifted to Hope VI, which enabled many cities, including Baltimore, to demolish troubled high-rise public housing complexes and replace them with communities that mix subsidized tenants with homeowners.

But now that program, too, is on the ropes. Meanwhile, the nation is in the midst of a worsening low-income housing crisis, activists say.

The government's main instruments for taking care of low-income housing needs nowadays are Section 8 vouchers.

In Baltimore, those vouchers, which are accepted by some qualifying landlords as rent payments, play such a pivotal role that about 11,000 have been issued to supplement the housing authority's 13,000 public housing units. However, up to 30,000 city residents are waiting for Section 8 vouchers, according to testimony at the trial.

ACLU representatives, who fault Baltimore's past public housing efforts for producing racial and economic segregation, say the Section 8 vouchers have been a disaster, too.

"Section 8 is a complete train wreck and segregative tool," ACLU lawyer Susan Podolsky told Garbis.

Susan Goering, the local ACLU's executive director, contended that although the vouchers in theory enabled tenants to spread throughout the metropolitan area, so few units are available that recipients in Baltimore end up in or near their old neighborhoods. That continues past racial and economic segregation, Goering said. During two days of closing arguments, Garbis repeatedly asked the ACLU to recommend specific "realistic" remedies if he rules in the tenants' favor. Podolsky told Garbis the ACLU wants a "hard units" and "metro-wide remedy."

But because Congress no longer replaces conventional public housing, or "hard units," observers said corrective action would be difficult to implement through Section 8 vouchers. In that program, the availability of units in better neighborhoods depends on landlords' willingness to rent to underprivileged tenants.

Garbis said that "if you brought a man from Mars" to solve the problems of segregation and poverty, that visitor, without knowing about jurisdictional borders and contrasting racial make-up in the Baltimore region, would exclaim: "Oh my goodness, here is the solution." That solution would be to extend public housing into jurisdictions beyond the city boundary.

And the judge said that he was at a loss in figuring out how Baltimore City could "realistically" eradicate racial and economic segregation without extending public housing to Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Those adjoining jurisdictions are majority white and financially stable, compared to the largely poor and black city.

However, the ACLU's suit only deals with the city housing authority and HUD, even though Baltimore County has never had a public housing authority and the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1970 documented the county's discrimination against the poor, both black and white.

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