Ruling gives vindication to Schmoke

Urban Chronicle

Housing: After the former mayor testifies, a judge says the city did not engage in intentional racial discrimination during his administration.

January 20, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

KURT L. Schmoke recalls his cross-examination by an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in a housing discrimination lawsuit as "one of the most uncomfortable sessions I ever had in court, trying to convince him that Baltimore of the 1990s was not Birmingham of the 1960s."

Whether the testimony of Schmoke, the city's elected black mayor, convinced the ACLU of his position is unclear. What is obvious is that his testimony helped convince the judge overseeing the case that during the Schmoke administration from 1987 to 1999, the city neither engaged in intentional racial discrimination nor violated its duty to take steps to reverse the effects of past bias.

In his decision two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development breached fair-housing laws by failing to taking a regional approach to desegregating the city's public housing, but he absolved the city of wrongdoing.

Lack of culpability

In announcing his decision more than a year after Schmoke's testimony in a three-week trial, Garbis made a particular point of emphasizing the lack of culpability of the man who is now dean of the Howard University law school. "Kurt Schmoke is far more worthy of being honored than being attacked by the ACLU," Garbis said.

The part of Garbis' decision regarding the city - and his comments about Schmoke - were duly reported when his opinion was announced. They are worth repeating now, lest they get lost in the avalanche of concern and conjecture about what remedies might be developed to give public housing residents greater choice in where they live.

For the city was as much a victor in the case as the ACLU and the residents. As William F. Ryan Jr., the Whiteford, Taylor and Preston partner who was the city's lead trial attorney in the case, put it, "We won that case, lock stock and barrel."

Schmoke - who as mayor agreed to a partial settlement of the case a year after it was filed in 1996 so that the HOPE VI public housing developments wouldn't be held up by the litigation - was out of state and unavailable for comment when the decision was announced. But he spoke freely about the ruling last week.

"I agreed with the judge's analysis on both law and policy," Schmoke said. "I really am hopeful the regional officials will look on this as an opportunity and not a burden."

Schmoke recalled meeting with county officials to tell them about the federal Moving to Opportunity program in the early 1990s, which gave a small number of city public housing residents the opportunity to move to the suburbs, and pointing out that a few residents had already been using housing vouchers outside the city.

"Some didn't know that," he said. "That shows the point - that they were not creating problems." Still, what Schmoke describes as a "cascading political attack" led to the termination of the program.

`Personally hopeful'

"I think there's still some of the same fears if people don't understand what the courts are trying to," he said. "I feel personally hopeful if the judge is able to pull all the parties together behind closed doors. If the judge just left it to elected officials to devise a plan, I'm not sure a plan would be devised."

In his decision, Garbis said actions of the Schmoke administration that the plaintiffs called discriminatory - including the placing of a fence around Hollander Ridge and the construction of public housing units in the low-income Johnston Square neighborhood - were legitimate and reasonable attempts to improve the safety and housing of poor people.

Schmoke said he understood the tactical reasons for the accusations but added, "I never though there was a scintilla of evidence that we engaged in racial discrimination when I came into office."

Schmoke was not the only one singled out for praise by Garbis. The judge cited as "heroes" several former housing officials for moving quickly to open white public housing projects to blacks after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in public schools.

That's not to minimize the often-sordid racial history of the city, which became part of the court record in the case, from the overtly racist opposition by Northeast Baltimore residents to integrated housing in Herring Run to prohibiting African-Americans from trying on clothes in the department stores along Howard Street.

As a native of Baltimore, born in 1949, Schmoke said he felt little firsthand discrimination as he was growing up, other than the exclusion of blacks from the Gwynn Oaks amusement park. "All my experience in Baltimore schools were in integrated settings," he said. "As I was leaving in 1967, the system was starting to resegregate."

Schmoke said it was his experience as mayor that a lot of low-income residents wanted better housing but didn't want to leave their neighborhoods.

He said he was concerned that even though HUD might agree with the policy implication of Garbis' ruling, it might feel the need to appeal on legal grounds. But he said he was hopeful a plan could be worked out that would benefit all involved.

"It shouldn't just assume that everyone wants to move out of the city," he said. "For those who do, it should make sure they're not concentrated. We don't want the creation of little ghettos."

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