Suburbs fight efforts to move the poor

Historical View

January 07, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

As New Deal dollars filtered into every corner of America in the 1940s, a dozen public housing centers rose in the poorest areas of Baltimore. Almost none rose in the counties surrounding the city.

The contrast raised few eyebrows in a time when segregation was the norm and limited transportation meant housing for the poor needed to be near the highest concentrations of those who would use it.

But even as the suburbs have diversified in the decades since, the situation has changed little.

The city has demolished public housing complexes, and federal officials have shifted dollars to programs - such as vouchers and tax credits - that emphasize choice for residents. But none of those steps has changed the basic equation, said U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis.

He ruled yesterday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has not met its obligations to spread public housing around the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Garbis' description of Baltimore as a "reservation" for the area's public housing is all too true, say housing experts and historians.

Suburban residents have often vigorously opposed efforts to move public housing residents outside the city. As recently as 1994, angry Baltimore County residents shouted down an expansion of a federal program that used rent subsidies to move poor families out of the city.

Edgar O. Olsen, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, said strong opposition in suburban areas around the country has been a basic roadblock to public housing migration. "There's no question there was heavy pressure created by people who did not want public housing projects in their back yards," Olsen said.

Those who have observed housing battles over the years say emotion often overwhelms broader policy goals. "I'm sure things could have been done that weren't done," said Walter Sondheim Jr., former chairman of the city's Urban Renewal and Housing Commission. "But it's a very complicated problem because of people's feelings."

Some experts say it's folly to think any policy will overcome the human instinct to live in a familiar environment.

"Study after study will show you that in any of these programs, 50 percent of the people will choose to live in roughly the same kind of neighborhood they lived in before," said Douglas Besharov, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland.

In the 1940s and 1950s, federal officials channeled public housing into areas where it was most needed at the time, which were almost uniformly poor and urban. By following accepted practices of segregation, housing policies further entrenched clusters of poor blacks, historians argue.

"It's very true that public housing led to more segregation," Olsen said.

In 1940, Poe Homes, just west of downtown, became the first public housing project to open in Baltimore. It was one of a dozen housing complexes - six for whites, six for blacks - built in the city that decade.

The city created an enormous concentration of poor, black residents when it erected two segregated projects in Cherry Hill, then a swath of vacant land in South Baltimore.

Garbis' decision said that 50 years later, the "vast majority" of public housing units in the Baltimore region were concentrated in the city and only 44 percent of those holding Section 8 vouchers in the region resided outside the city. About 14,000 of the city's 651,000 residents live in public housing, and about 10,000 more use federal vouchers to rent.

The counties surrounding Baltimore are not without public housing. Many are confronting serious shortages of "affordable" or "workforce housing." Some have histories as fierce opponents of public housing.

Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in 1954, Baltimore County became known as a haven for whites who feared that poor black families would follow them to the suburbs. Republican Spiro T. Agnew, who was Baltimore County executive from 1962 to 1966 before being elected governor and then vice president, was thought to be a liberal as eastern county Democrats played off the fears of white constituents with speeches about federal housing programs "with strings attached."

The county did not create a housing agency until 1987.

In 1994, the outcry against an expansion of the Moving to Opportunity Program grew so loud in an election year that U.S. Senator Barbara A. Mikulski - normally a liberal Democrat - killed the program in Congress. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. gained political capital as a Baltimore County congressman by opposing a subsequent proposal to move 1,342 families to the suburbs using federal rent subsidies.

Then-County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger negotiated with federal officials to limit the number of families who would receive vouchers to relocate to the county to 60 a year for six years.

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