U.S. judge is asked to order housing for poor in suburbs

March 21, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

Lawyers for Baltimore public housing residents are asking a federal judge to order the creation of 3,000 new low-income housing units and an additional 3,750 housing vouchers, mostly in well-off suburban neighborhoods with good schools and access to jobs.

The request comes 14 months after the judge found that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of city public housing.

It asks the federal agency to provide tenants with 675 new "housing opportunities a year over the next decade to reduce the effects of decades of discriminatory actions."

Whether the judge accepts the proposal or crafts his own solution to the discrimination he has found, the case highlights one of the Baltimore region's most vexing and contentious issues - how to dilute the concentration of poverty in the city.

The proposed order is drawing opposition and skepticism from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and some suburban leaders, and it is being vigorously contested by lawyers for HUD, who say it is "entirely uncalled for" and "simply not practical."

The 11-year-old housing case is set to begin its next phase Monday, when U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis expects to hear at least two weeks of testimony and arguments on the appropriate remedy for HUD's violations.

Attorneys for the public housing residents say they have carefully crafted their proposals to exclude close-in, working-class suburbs that are experiencing problems with poverty and where some residents have in the past vocally opposed the relocation of public housing residents.

"We want to be as clear as possible that we don't consider those neighborhoods to be communities of opportunity where these families should live," said Andrew W. Freeman, a private civil rights lawyer who is working on the case with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We want them to move to places that can make a huge difference to these families and no noticeable difference to the neighborhoods where they live."

Nonetheless, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith is concerned about the effects of a judicial mandate.

"Moving poverty from one jurisdiction to another simply makes no sense," Smith said in a statement.

"It has already proven to be failed public policy, and I am not sure why we would revisit that issue. Although Baltimore County is not part of this lawsuit, we will be ready to fight any program that negatively impacts families in Baltimore County."

O'Malley denounced what he called the "old bigotry that the city is by its nature a bad place."

"I think the ACLU would serve their clients and the cause of justice and fairness better if they directed their energies toward creating work force housing inside the city ... rather than pushing our people into the suburbs," O'Malley said.

Howard County Executive James N. Robey "would be comfortable welcoming individuals for a program set up that way," said spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. But she added that the county's high cost of housing "does not make it practical for the program here."

Perry Jones, one of three Carroll County commissioners, also raised concerns about the proposed remedy. Harford County Executive David R. Craig declined to comment; Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens did not respond to requests for comment.

In January 2005, Garbis found that HUD had violated federal fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to provide opportunities for black public housing families to live outside poor, segregated city neighborhoods.

The ruling stemmed from a 1995 class action lawsuit, Carmen Thompson et al. v. United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, brought on behalf of black public housing residents.

The lawsuit charged that the city and the federal government had failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing they set up in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby relegating public housing tenants to the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

Garbis absolved the city and its Housing Authority of wrongdoing in his 2005 ruling and pushed for settlement talks between HUD and the public housing residents. Those talks went nowhere.

Like the first, or liability, phase of the case, heard for three weeks in December 2003, the second phase of the case is being closely watched by civil rights and fair housing advocates nationwide.

"It's the most important case right now nationally on the question of fair housing and HUD's obligation to reverse some of the unfair policies it has pursued over the last several decades," said Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Washington-based Poverty and Race Research Action Council. One of the organization's board members is a key expert plaintiffs' witness in the case.

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