HUD must remain under court jurisdiction until it meets obligation in city housing case

U.S. 4th Circuit Court affirms decision of District Court judge

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April 16, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development should remain under court jurisdiction until it fulfills its obligations under the terms of a partial consent decree negotiated in a 10-year-old public housing discrimination case in Baltimore, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.

In a 19-page opinion, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the decision of U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis to modify the consent decree by extending the court's jurisdiction over HUD because of the "near total failure" to meet deadlines for complying with terms of the agreement.

The appellate decision is the second court ruling this year to go against the federal housing agency in a lawsuit brought in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Baltimore's black public housing residents. The suit accused the city and HUD of perpetuating the segregated system they put in place in the 1930s by continuing to concentrate public housing residents in poor, minority areas of the city.

In January, Garbis ruled that HUD violated federal fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to public housing but absolved the city of wrongdoing.

Settlement talks over ways to remedy HUD's discrimination broke down last week, and Garbis set a December date for a trial that would determine court-mandated solutions that could involve providing more opportunities for public housing residents to move to the suburbs.

Yesterday's appeals court decision involved a partial consent decree reached in June 1996 between the city, HUD and the ACLU regarding the replacement of units that were lost by the demolition of the public housing high-rises and their replacement with mixed-income communities containing far fewer residents.

"It's part of a pattern of HUD trying to avoid its responsibilities to Baltimore's public housing residents, and we're gratified the courts aren't letting them do it," said Andrew D. Freeman, an attorney for the public housing residents.

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is representing HUD in the case, had no immediate comment.

"We would have to review the decision and make our determination of our next step," he said.

The consent decree required the city and the federal government to provide approximately 2,000 units of housing, including rental vouchers and permanent units, in mostly white, middle-class areas of the city and the suburbs.

Under the original terms of the decree, the court was to have jurisdiction over the city until the terms of the decree were met, and over HUD for seven years. But when early compliance with the decree was almost nonexistent -- out of 911 permanent public housing units that were to be created, only eight were completed as of the end of 2002 -- Garbis agreed to a plaintiffs' motion to modify the decree and extend the jurisdiction over HUD.

It was that ruling that HUD appealed, contending that compliance was the responsibility of the city.

But in its decision yesterday, the 4th Circuit in Richmond said that while the city bears most of the substantive obligations, "the decree also imposes various obligations on HUD, many of which are related" to the responsibilities of the city. For example, the decree requires HUD to make available certain properties it controls to be developed as public housing units, the appellate court noted.

Since then, compliance has improved but lags far behind the number of units specified under the agreement. Of the 911 permanent units, 236 have been created, said Barbara A. Samuels, an ACLU attorney. Overall, about 700 housing units have been provided, most with special vouchers, she said.

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