High cost of housing suit

City, HUD agree to pay $300,000 in legal fees in civil rights case

January 02, 2007|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,Sun reporter

The payments — The city and the federal government have agreed to pay nearly $300,000 to lawyers representing black Baltimore public housing residents - the latest installment of legal fees in a long-running civil rights case.

The payments - $236,744 from the city and $53,427 from the federal government - are being made to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the private firm of Brown, Goldstein & Levy for monitoring a partial consent decree in the case during a two-year period from July 1, 2002, through June 30, 2004, according to court documents.

City officials say this bill brings the total they have paid out in the case to the ACLU, Brown, Goldstein & Levy and another private firm no longer involved in the case to $1.5 million.

In addition, officials say they have paid $5.1 million since 1998 to the local firm of Whiteford, Taylor & Preston to defend the city against allegations of discrimination.

A spokesman for the Justice Department could not say how much the federal government has paid to plaintiffs' lawyers in the case, but court records indicate it is about $500,000. The Justice Department has used lawyers from its civil division to represent the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"It's almost unfathomable that you could spend that much money and not produce one housing unit," city Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said of the money the city has paid to lawyers in the case. "It's also disturbing that it will continue indefinitely."

Graziano said the city could have created 40 new affordable housing units or renovated and made disabled-accessible 100 apartments for the money it has spent in legal fees in the case.

But Andrew D. Freeman, an attorney for Brown, Goldstein & Levy, said the fees paid to lawyers for public housing residents was necessitated by the city's lethargy in complying with the terms of the partial consent decree that was negotiated in 1996.

Under the terms of the decree that allowed the old family public housing high-rises to be redeveloped as mixed-income communities, the city and the federal government agreed to provide some 2,200 units for public housing residents in mostly white middle-class areas of the city and the suburbs by the end of 2002.

By that time, however, just 68 units had been provided, Freeman said. As of this past summer, about 800 units had been provided through a combination of special housing vouchers and renovated construction - "still a long way short," Freeman said.

"If the city had spent that much money to comply with the partial consent decree, there wouldn't be the need for all the lawyers," Freeman said.

Federal law allows plaintiffs who prevail in civil rights cases against government entities to recover legal fees and expenses. Plaintiffs are generally considered to have prevailed in cases in which consent decrees are negotiated, even if there are no admissions of wrongdoing by the government.

The legal fees stem from a lawsuit filed in January 1995 by the ACLU on behalf of black city public housing residents against the city, its public housing agency and HUD.

The lawsuit charged that the city and the federal government had unlawfully perpetuated the segregated system of public housing they had set up in the 1930s and 1940s. The suit alleged that their failure had consigned public housing residents to live in the city's most distressed neighborhoods.

In January 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis ruled that HUD had violated fair housing laws by not taking a regional approach to provide opportunities for black public housing residents to live outside poor, segregated neighborhoods.

Garbis absolved the city and its housing authority of wrongdoing.

In March, Garbis heard two weeks of testimony in the second phase of the trial designed to craft a remedy for HUD's violation.

Lawyers for public housing residents asked Garbis to order the federal housing agency to provide 6,750 special housing vouchers and new and rehabilitated units over 10 years, mostly in well-off suburbs of the city. Lawyers for HUD countered that Garbis did not have the authority to order the creation of new housing and said the plaintiffs' proposal was "plagued with problems."

Garbis, who heard both phases of the trial without a jury, has yet to issue a remedy ruling.

Freeman said he expects HUD to appeal any remedy ruling by Garbis - as well as his finding of liability - to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

If Garbis' decisions are upheld, the ACLU and Freeman's firm could ask the court to order the federal government to pay legal fees for the trial phases of the case as well as the monitoring of the consent decree.

Asked how much those fees might be, Freeman said: "A lot."

"Everything about this case has been strenuously contested by the United States and required a lot of legal work to overcome," Freeman said.

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