Public housing case argued

Remedy for possible bias sought during federal court session

July 12, 2006|By MATTHEW DOLAN | MATTHEW DOLAN,SUN REPORTER

At one point in court yesterday, a federal judge pleaded for a small sign that the government would try to improve the way minorities from Baltimore receive information about publicly subsidized housing available outside the city.

A lawyer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - during a remedy phase of a trial on whether residents of the city's public housing communities have suffered discrimination - argued that the agency had done enough.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled last year that HUD had violated fair-housing laws for decades. Now, he was overseeing closing arguments from lawyers representing the government and the tenants about how to best resolve the problem. It wasn't easy.

"This is a case in which people were wronged," Garbis said from the bench. "We still have a 100 percent segregated public housing system in Baltimore, or at least close to that."

Garbis' January, 2005 ruling gave a victory - only on paper so far - to black Baltimore public housing residents who claimed in 1995 that the city and federal government had failed to make significant progress in integrating public housing in the city.

The judge must now fashion a remedy that seeks to provide public housing families in the city with an opportunity to live in diverse communities. He indicated in his earlier ruling that the solutions would need to take a regional approach, potentially moving thousands of families into the counties that ring the city.

A lawyer for HUD, Judry Subar, said that the government had provided dozens of programs to improve the lives of the poor in the city. Moreover, Subar said, the government could not be compelled to build additional housing in the suburbs because Congress had not earmarked money for such construction.

The lawyers in the case argued all day yesterday, presenting their arguments about how responsible HUD should have been for the segregation and what type of plan could be employed to allow city residents the chance to use their public subsidy vouchers throughout the Baltimore region.

The city and its Housing Authority were earlier cleared of wrongdoing in the case, which has extended more than a decade.

Plaintiffs' attorney Peter Buscemi argued yesterday that Garbis should require HUD to provide 6,750 special housing vouchers and new and rehabilitated units over 10 years. He called them "communities of opportunity."

"There is an affirmation obligation to get rid of the [effects of housing segregation] root and branch," Buscemi said. "The segregation is still with us. The effect is still with us."

Subar countered that the city's population shift to the suburbs showed that movement of black residents is possible. In addition, he said, HUD has done an adequate job of ensuring that some city residents could find housing opportunities outside Baltimore.

Garbis became visibly frustrated yesterday when he asked Subar to guarantee that HUD would provide every public housing resident a listing of available subsidized housing in the surrounding suburbs.

Subar declined, saying HUD would be wary of a judge's order telling the agency how to run its complex affairs. The response left Garbis flummoxed.

Isn't it the wrong thing for these residents to be denied the housing information they need, Garbis asked. "Is there anything right about that?" the judge inquired.

"I don't believe so, your honor," Subar said, still not agreeing on HUD's behalf to provide the listings.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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