- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 29, 2003

BALTIMORE (AP) — It’s been nearly nine years since Baltimore housing tenants filed a lawsuit charging city and federal officials with creating a system of racially segregated rental units.

Tomorrow, they will get to make their case in federal court that officials have consigned the neediest residents to the most distressed neighborhoods.

The trial will highlight a legal debate over whether the Housing Authority of Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) have perpetuated a bias over the past 50 years.

Specialists say the case is one of the most significant civil rights actions in Baltimore’s history and one of the country’s most important housing cases in the past 20 years.

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

Tenants’ attorneys haven’t said what changes they would recommend if they win. But they say they want a plan with guidelines for site selection for future Housing Authority properties and enhancements to the Section 8 rental certificate program.

Attorneys for the tenants say it’s no accident that the “overwhelming majority” of black public housing residents live in impoverished, minority neighborhoods. They say the city and HUD preserved the segregated system put in place in the 1930s and 1940s by continuing to locate new public housing in poor minority areas rather than in white, affluent communities.

“The factual record is one of overt, purposeful and long-standing social engineering by the federal government and local officials in support of racially segregated, publicly assisted housing,” attorneys for the residents wrote in a pretrial memorandum last month.

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

Since the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education ruling that racial segregation is 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.

“Plaintiffs have no … evidence that any of the policies, practices or decisions they challenge in their lawsuit were motivated by an actual intent to engage in racial discrimination,” attorneys for the city wrote in their pretrial memo.

City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer Jr. said it is important for Baltimore to resolve the case and move forward.

Susan Goering, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the suit in January 1995 on behalf of 14,000 Baltimore public housing residents, said the case “is about providing good homes for good families after seven decades of bad government policy. Where we live affects everything about how we live, from our schools to our jobs to our health.”

A HUD spokeswoman in Washington said the agency doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

The case is one of the few major civil rights cases coming to trial in the nation, and specialists say it’s being closely watched outside Baltimore.

As courts are easing school desegregation orders, “student segregation is increasing everywhere,” said Gary Orfield, founding co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. “Housing [location] becomes even more determinative of life chances.”

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