Judge criticizes pooling poor in city

Court says HUD violated housing law by failing to take a regional approach

Ruling in 1995 federal civil-rights lawsuit

January 07, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Declaring that Baltimore "should not be viewed as an island reservation for use as a container" for all of the area's poor, a federal judge ruled yesterday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair housing law by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing.

In a lengthy and strongly worded decision in a 10-year-old civil rights case that shone a spotlight on the city's racial as well as housing history, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said HUD officials had been "effectively wearing blinders" that kept them from looking beyond Baltimore for ways to disperse the concentration of public housing residents.

The decision was a victory for public housing tenants and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit in 1995. They charged that city and federal officials had failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing put in place in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby consigning poor black residents to the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, a photo caption in yesterday's editions incorrectly spelled the name of Gilmor Homes.
The Sun regrets the error.

Since the lawsuit began, Baltimore's public housing has undergone a dramatic transformation. Its family high-rise buildings have been demolished and replaced with mixed-income communities, and an increasing number of families rely on subsidized rental certificates - but public housing still remains highly segregated.

In his ruling - delivered before a packed courtroom - Garbis absolved the city of wrongdoing but said "it is high time that HUD live up to its statutory mandate" to consider the racial and socioeconomic effects of its policies.

Garbis said from the bench that he would schedule a conference soon to discuss possible appropriate remedies and would invite representatives of the region's counties to come "without commitment, without prejudice."

"Maybe there's a way that people can recognize that we're all together in this region but, if not, I'll do what I can to make sure that they do," he said.

While Garbis did not mention any specific potential remedies yesterday, lawyers and others familiar with the lawsuit said alternatives might include enhanced vouchers for public housing residents - better enabling them to find places in suburban areas with higher rents - and some new or rehabilitated units.

Similar remedies have been tried in other urban areas where federal judges found discrimination in public housing.

Representatives of HUD and the Department of Justice, which defended the agency in court, said the decision was being reviewed and declined to comment further.

Reaction among county officials was mixed.

Howard County housing commissioner Leonard S. Vaughan, who was in federal court for Garbis' announcement of his opinion, called the ruling a "fair and just decision" and said potential remedies could help the county with its own problems in providing affordable housing.

But Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens, while saying she was not familiar with all the details, said Garbis' ruling "sure does sound like judicial activism at its most dubious."

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is "satisfied that Judge Garbis' ruling confirms what the city's position has been all along - that the city did not discriminate," said spokesman Rick Abbruzzesse. He said the mayor would have no further comment until he had a chance to review the entire opinion.

Lawyers for public housing residents and the residents themselves said they hoped the decision would provide increased opportunities for residents to live outside of impoverished neighborhoods.

"It's been a long time coming," said Carmen Thompson, the lead plaintiff in the case and a former resident of the now-demolished Lexington Terrace high-rises who lives in a subsidized rental apartment in Northeast Baltimore. "Hopefully, it'll mean that people will be able to live in better places."

"A region-wide remedy is something we've sought for a decade," said Susan R. Podolsky, an attorney with the Washington law firm of Jenner and Block who has been working with the ACLU on the case.

Andrew D. Freeman, a partner in the Baltimore firm of Brown, Goldstein and Levy who has also worked on the case, said he envisioned a possible remedy along the lines of a partial settlement of the case negotiated in 1996.

That settlement called for about 2,000 housing "opportunities" to be created in mostly middle-class, white areas of the city and suburbs through special certificates and construction of new and rehabilitated units. So far, about 600 units have been created, he said.

Phillip Tegeler, executive director of the nonprofit Poverty and Race Research Action Council, said the decision provided a "huge opportunity" for the Baltimore region to provide more equitable housing. "There's still a lot of work to be done to remedy past discrimination," he said.

Garbis is not the first judge to call for a regional remedy to ameliorate instances of past discrimination.

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