The wrong housing fix

January 02, 2004|By David F. Tufaro

THE LAWSUIT brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of 14,000 mostly minority public housing residents in Baltimore City has been a blatant attempt to circumvent the political process that, if successful, can only result in a further decline of the city.

The idea of such a lawsuit, which alleges racial motivation in the siting of public housing projects and avowedly seeks as a remedy to disperse poor black families into better-off majority-white communities, shows utter disrespect for the citizens, black and white. It also reveals a lack of understanding of the delicate balance in which the city, which has been in a population slide for several decades, finds itself today.

Final arguments in the lawsuit before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis were heard Dec. 23. A ruling is expected later this month.

The ACLU is pursuing an unrealistic ideal of "fair allocation" of poor minorities among the more wealthy majority-white neighborhoods in the Baltimore region. And just as the forced busing of children out of their neighborhoods was the wrong remedy 30 to 40 years ago, the ACLU's solution for public housing is wrongheaded today. Busing, which was intended to achieve an ideal of school integration to remedy a history of segregated schools, contributed to the acceleration of de facto segregation in our schools and our city.

It should be the policy of the federal government and the city not to foster segregation, but the question is how to do it. The ACLU's lawsuit precludes public participation in an open and democratic forum and virtually ensures that the real issues that could have a positive impact on the lives of ACLU's "clients" will not be addressed.

It was misguided government policies directed from Washington in the 1940s and 1950s that produced the large, high-rise apartment complexes that created or reinforced large concentrations of the working poor.

Public housing was intended to be a stepping stone for people, not a permanent home from which they would never be able to escape.

Neglect and ineptitude on the part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City in recent years contributed to the concentration of poor minorities in public housing. Good, strong management would have served to strengthen the neighborhoods in which public housing was situated rather than weaken them.

The lawsuit does not account for the fact that public housing is only one part of HUD's and the city's effort to house the poor. Low-income housing has been built throughout the city by private for-profit and nonprofit developers. This housing is not concentrated in poor minority neighborhoods.

The lawsuit does not recognize that the increased concentration of the poor and minorities in Baltimore substantially has been caused by blacks and whites moving out of the city for decades.

The discrimination lawsuit totally ignores the root causes of the current plight, and the heavy concentration, of poor and minorities in the city. This is the result of other government programs, most notably our public schools, which fail our children by the thousands every year.

Having outlined some of the most important reasons why this lawsuit is inappropriate, the following are among the preferred remedies:

The housing authority needs to manage public housing responsibly and humanely or turn over management to private companies with strong oversight and accountability.

Public housing or Section 8 subsidized rental certificates should not be treated as an entitlement. Evict tenants who engage in criminal activity, drug dealing or other anti-social behavior that adversely affects public housing residents.

Residents must be prepared for future rental or ownership opportunities outside public housing from the day they move into public housing.

Federal or city programs can't be permitted to impose government-assisted housing on neighborhoods against the will of the people. To ignore this caveat is to encourage people to vote their displeasure by moving out of their neighborhoods.

Housing policies that destabilize existing communities should be eliminated. The Section 8 program too often has been administered by HUD and the city in a way that undermines efforts to strengthen neighborhoods.

We need a comprehensive strategic plan for strengthening our neighborhoods that takes into account such issues as the reality of a less densely populated city, open space and recreation facilities, demolition of obsolete housing, renovated and new housing and the location of positive, job-generating activities.

Baltimore's public schools must be seriously reformed. The Thornton Commission funding is of no value without such a commitment. The goal should be to prepare the city's children for a life in which public housing need not be an option.

David F. Tufaro is a housing developer and housing and community development advocate and was a Republican Baltimore mayoral candidate in 1999.

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