U.S. Judge is Asked to Order Housing for Poor in Suburbs

Eric Siegel, Baltimore Sun, March 21, 2006

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.”

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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.

Nearly 20 desegregation cases have been successfully litigated over the past 30 years against HUD and local housing authorities. Of those, about half have involved metropolitan solutions.

They include the landmark Gautreaux case in Chicago of the 1960s and 1970s, which led to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that metropolitan-wide desegregation solutions cases were permissible, and the more recent Walker and Hollman cases in Dallas and Minneapolis in the 1980s and 1990s.

In both Gautreaux and Walker, thousands of public housing residents moved to the suburbs, mostly through specially funded housing vouchers.

But, after a finding of wrongdoing by the agencies, the cases that have resulted in metropolitan solutions have typically involved consent decrees and settlements between the parties, not court-ordered solutions.

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Plaintiffs contend that discrimination is responsible for the fact that more than 90 percent of the region’s family public housing units in the mid-1990s were concentrated in areas of the city with disproportionately high numbers of African-Americans and that most holders of housing vouchers also lived in areas that were overwhelmingly black and poor.

Under the proposed order, the creation of a total of 6,750 housing units would occur in what public housing residents’ lawyers call “communities of opportunity”—areas that comprise 40 percent of the region’s census tracts.

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