- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

BALTIMORE — City and federal housing authorities deliberately segregated public housing since the programs started in the 1930s, said attorneys yesterday in a suit filed by tenants nearly nine years ago.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Christopher Brown said blacks “took the brunt of the bulldozers’ advance in urban renewal.”

At issue is whether the Housing Authority of Baltimore City and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) consigned the neediest residents to the most distressed neighborhoods.

“If anything, we have regressed rather than progressed,” Mr. Brown said.

City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer acknowledged past racism but said the city “abandoned sanctioned segregation” immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Housing advocates say the trial in U.S. District Court is one of the most significant civil rights actions in Baltimore’s history and one of the country’s most important housing cases in 20 years.

The tenants want a public housing plan with guidelines for site selection and enhancements to the Section 8 program, which subsidizes the rent of those living in private rental properties.

U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis could specify changes in housing policy if he find that the tenants’ civil rights were violated. The result could be judicial oversight of housing decisions that could last for years.

The plaintiff’s first witness was John A. Powell, who has had his name legally changed to all lower-case letters. The Moritz College of Law professor testified that city and federal officials repeatedly bowed to pressure from white communities to keep public housing out of their neighborhoods, though the housing officials knew it would reinforcing segregation.

“Time and time again, blacks protested [putting] public housing in slum communities, and in each case they were ignored,” Mr. Powell said. “But when [housing officials] attempt to place public housing in white communities, they acquiesce to organized protest.”

Mr. Powell is the director of the Kirwin Institute of Race and Ethnicity at Moritz College and has written extensively about civil rights issues.

He said such decisions were also made under black administrations.

Mr. Zollicoffer said he would call former Mayor KurtSchmoke and former Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson, both of whom are black, to testify that they acted “in the best interest, not only of the public housing residents, but of the city as a whole.”

HUD attorney Diane Kelleher said the agency has made significant improvements since the plaintiffs filed their suit nearly a decade ago.

She said, for example, the agency now uses a voucher system and that the large, high-rise housing projects built in the 1960s have since been demolished.

The city and federal officials say the concentrations of public housing residents in poor, black neighborhoods are the result of demographics and broad policy decisions, not discrimination. They also say most available neighborhoods for public housing have black residents because the majority of city residents are black.

Since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation was unconstitutional, decisions on where to put public housing have been based on the need to provide more low-income housing and revitalize neighborhoods, city officials say.

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