Housing segregation case enters remedy stage

March 28, 2006|By ERIC SIEGEL | ERIC SIEGEL,SUN REPORTER

Creating thousands of new opportunities for Baltimore public housing families to live in well-off suburbs was necessary to make "real progress" in overcoming decades of government policies that segregated residents in poor, minority areas of the city, a lawyer for the tenants told a federal judge yesterday.

In his opening statement in the remedy phase of a public housing desegregation case, attorney Peter Buscemi said a proposal requiring the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide 6,750 special housing vouchers and new and rehabilitated units over 10 years would give public housing families a "better chance at life."

But a lawyer for HUD countered that the proposal was "plagued with problems and should not be implemented in any form."

The judge does not have the authority to order the creation of new housing but can only ask the federal agency to review decisions that he found problematic, said HUD lawyer Peter Phipps.

In January 2005, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis found that HUD had violated federal fair-housing laws by failing to "affirmatively further fair housing" by taking a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing in Baltimore.

The ruling stemmed from a class action lawsuit filed in 1995 on behalf of black Baltimore public housing residents that claimed that the city and the federal government had failed to dismantle the segregated public housing system they set up in the 1930s and 1940s. Garbis absolved the city and its Housing Authority of wrongdoing.

Yesterday, Garbis, who is hearing the case without a jury, expressed skepticism toward HUD's position and sympathy for the public housing residents.

After Phipps told the judge that he could only order HUD to review its decisions, Garbis said, "Why don't you reconsider everything, and then we can all go home?"

Earlier, Garbis interrupted Buscemi to muse about what he would do to dilute concentrations of poverty if he had no legal or financial constraints.

"I have a pretty good idea what I would do. I must say, your proposed order doesn't go that far," Garbis said.

Garbis also lamented that the two sides haven't reached a settlement, as was done in several similar cases nationwide.

"It is peculiar that something that is quite obviously better able to be designed by the parties will be designed by the court," he said.

In addition to considering a remedy for the violation of fair-housing laws he found, Garbis is also considering whether HUD violated the constitutional rights of public housing residents - a finding that could provide a stronger legal underpinning for a regional solution. And he has said he would allow HUD to present evidence to convince him that his 2005 ruling was wrong.

In his opening statement, Buscemi argued that by such actions as routinely locating public housing in impoverished, minority areas, "the government has helped segregated housing in Baltimore to persist."

Buscemi noted that the plaintiffs were suggesting that HUD make procedural changes to ensure that the agency take a regional approach to assisted housing in the future but said the creation of a specified number of units was also needed.

"We can't create real progress by [administrative remedies] alone," he said.

Under the plaintiffs' proposal, Buscemi said, only a couple of families a year would need to move into each of more than 200 suburban census tracts identified as "communities of opportunity," too few to affect the quality of those neighborhoods.

"It is not in the plaintiffs' interest to alter the character of neighborhoods," he said.

But, Phipps said, "HUD has taken extensive efforts to promote fair housing" through housing vouchers and outreach programs and said the plaintiffs' proposal would serve only a limited number of residents.

"Members of the plaintiffs' class have a stronger ally in HUD than the proposed remedy," Phipps said.

Jill Khadduri, a former high-ranking official in the agency's policy and research office, testified as an expert witness for the plaintiffs and said that the creation of several thousand housing opportunities over 10 years would be "completely practical."

But HUD lawyer Judry Subar suggested on cross-examination that the number was far beyond what would be required to remedy any affect of blatant discrimination of the past.

Another former HUD official, Margery Turner, said there was a large amount of evidence that families benefit in a number of ways from moving out of low-income communities.

"As jobs have decentralized, many high-poverty, highly segregated neighborhoods lack access to jobs," said Turner, now the director of the Metropolitan Housing & Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank.

eric.siegel@baltsun.com

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