HUD and Maryland ACLU agree to plan that will desegregate Baltimore's public housing

On April 8, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Henry Cisneros announced a plan that would help end decades of segregation in the Baltimore area by allowing more than 1,300 families to move out of segregated neighborhoods and into Baltimore suburbs.

The settlement ends a portion of the lawsuit filed by the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in January 1995 involving HUD's plan to tear down high-rise buildings across America and replace them with both public and market-rate housing. The suit was filed on behalf of Baltimore tenants who live in or near public housing high-rises. The suit alleged that HUD's plan to rebuild on demolished sites would continue a 60 year pattern of packing Baltimore's public housing residents into the inner city.

Doris Tinsley, one of the tenants in the case, told an Associated Press reporter that she never understood why the government would pay for her to live in a poor neighborhood, but would never assist her in moving to a community "where my kids could become productive people." She added, "We just want a chance, an opportunity to do something for ourselves."

"This agreement is important and unprecedented," said ACLU Executive Director Stuart Comstock-Gay. "For the first time ever, public housing residents will not be shoehorned into the same poor, segregated neighborhoods, but will have a range of choices where to live." Some of the choices in the settlement plan include new homes built on the sites of demolished units, rehabilitated homes in other Baltimore neighborhoods, and special rental certificates that may be used in low-poverty, non-racially impacted areas throughout the metropolitan Baltimore area.

The special rental certificates will be available to 1,342 families who qualify for public housing. The certificate program is modeled on successful mobility programs in Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas, and Hartford. Residents from throughout Baltimore's public housing system will be eligible to apply for the certificates. The applicants who are accepted will be provided with counseling regarding neighborhoods, schools, employment opportunities, transportation, and social services. The ACLU stressed that this program is voluntary and no one will be forced to apply for or use the certificates.

To further guard against reconcentration of poverty in older neighborhoods "inside the Beltway, "the 1,342 certificates will be distributed over a six year period. Certificates will be allocated for housing in Baltimore County, Baltimore City, Anne Arundel County, Carroll County, Harford County, Howard County, and Queen Anne's County.

According to Barbara Samuels, ACLU Managing Attorney for Housing, "This is a community-friendly plan. Properly implemented, this will strengthen neighborhoods and the entire metropolitan region." Studies of a similar program in Chicago showed that children in families who moved to the suburbs were less likely to drop out of school, more likely to go to college, and more likely to get a job earning more than $6.50 per hour if they chose not to go to college.

The settlement also clears the way for Baltimore to become the first American city to tear down all of its public housing high rises. The five public housing high-rises in Baltimore contain 2,984 housing units. All five high-rises are set to be demolished by the year 2001. After demolition, 781 new units will be built on the demolished sites. The settlement also calls for HUD to create a program that would assist additional families in becoming homeowners. Details of that plan are not yet available.

When HUD and the ACLU announced the settlement plan, Cisneros said, "We simply couldn't defend this lawsuit if defending it meant defending the system of high-rise public housing."

According to the Maryland ACLU, HUD's plan is only a "partial" settlement and does not end the lawsuit. The plaintiffs will still pursue claims for discriminatory tenant selection, unequal municipal services, and segregative selection of sites of public housing.