City's home-purchase grants for Hispanics raise legal doubts

$3,000 payments aim to attract immigrants

May 03, 2004|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Eager to attract immigrants to a city they've bypassed for decades, Baltimore is offering a limited number of $3,000 grants to Hispanics who buy houses here.

Legal scholars and others - ranging from conservative critics of affirmative action and advocates for Asian-American rights to fair housing experts and the local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - question whether the offer is legal.

The grants stem from Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambition to increase Baltimore's immigrant population. The money will be available to Hispanics, however, regardless of whether they are new arrivals to the United States. The grants have no income limits and can be used to buy a house selling for up to $300,000.

"They're going to revitalize our city," said Jose O. Ruiz, O'Malley's liaison to the Hispanic community. "They're hard workers. They pay taxes and never complain. Let's reach out to them."

Many observers applaud the city's efforts to attract more Hispanics through a variety of programs, including two recent home-buying seminars in Spanish. But some think setting aside grant money goes too far.

"If the city just decided we're going to give money to white people or black people, you'd say, `Wait a minute. There's an equality issue here,'" said David Bogen, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, praised the program's goal but questioned its legality.

"I've never heard of such a thing," she said, noting that minority contracting programs normally benefit "a wide variety of folks" who are considered disadvantaged, not one particular group. "It's extraordinary. And whether it would pass legal scrutiny, I'm not sure."

While courts have upheld some race-based college admissions policies and minority contracting programs (including Baltimore's), those are generally premised on remedying past discrimination, Bogen said.

"Absent any kind of court order or settlement to remedy past discrimination, the Fair Housing Act generally prohibits giving any kind of preference based on race or national origin in any housing-related transaction," said Bryan Greene, director of policy for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

Immigrants shun city

What Baltimore is trying to remedy is a half-century-old immigration pattern. The city that was once a magnet to the foreign-born has become a place they avoid, settling instead in other areas with more jobs, better schools and better public transportation.

Less than 6 percent of Baltimore's population is foreign-born, about half the national figure. Census figures show the number of immigrants in Baltimore has been flat, at about 30,000, since 1970. In surrounding suburbs, the number has jumped fivefold, to 117,000, since then.

That's a problem, according to O'Malley and a November 2002 Abell Foundation report, because immigrants could help check the city's population loss, create a more diverse population and revitalize parts of Baltimore.

"The mayor's office has made the promotion of immigrant migration to Baltimore a high priority as one of the tools for rebuilding Baltimore's neighborhoods and building the tax base and stabilizing communities," said Ken Strong, director of the Office of Home Ownership in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which is offering the grants.

"In other cities that have turned around their loss of population, the key to the success of turning that around was attracting immigrants to their cities," Strong said.

The grants, which must be repaid to the city if the homeowner resells within five years, are being offered under a broader program to increase homeownership in Baltimore. The city is offering grants to the first 50 people - regardless of race or ethnicity - who close on a house after participating in trolley tours of neighborhoods in the western portion of the city on Saturday.

An additional 15 grants are being set aside for Latinos who participate.

Ruiz says it's only fair to designate some of the money for Hispanics because language barriers have kept them from taking advantage of city home-buying programs until recently.

Since 1998, the city has offered $3,000 grants to buyers of any background at twice-yearly tours organized by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes city living. The tours have always been in English until September, the last time they were offered, when there was also a version for Spanish-speakers. Also for the first time in September, some of the grants were designated for Hispanics.

"We're behind," Ruiz said. "Let's catch up. They haven't been able to take advantage of those programs. They've been living here. They're entitled to it but they never applied because nobody has ever reached out to them."

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