Furious Baltimore County officials turned to Washington yesterday for help in putting an immediate end to a plan that would give more than a thousand low-income black families an opportunity to move out of inner-city Baltimore to more affluent and generally white neighborhoods.
Two of the Maryland congressmen who represent the county -- Republican Robert L. Ehrlich and Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin -- appealed to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to say no to a tentative court settlement of a housing discrimination suit that was announced Thursday.
Recalling racial tensions over a similar program last year, County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III charged that the plan would hurt race relations and damage older suburbs.
HUD, which is one of the parties to the suit, has to give its approval if the settlement, which would provide rental certificates to 1,342 public-housing families for use in predominantly white areas, is to go forward.
The plan would affect not only Baltimore County but other suburban counties as well.
Mr. Ehrlich, who called the plan "quota-driven, race-based, Section 8-style housing policy at its worst," declared that he had won assurances from HUD Secretary Henry R. Cisneros that no decision would be made until a meeting with county officials next week.
Mr. Cardin said he had been told that the meeting would be with the acting assistant secretary for fair housing, Betsy Julian.
But a HUD spokesman, Alex Sachs, said later in the day that while a session with county officials had been discussed, Mr. Cisneros had made no promises to hold one.
Mr. Sachs did say that no decision had been made on the subtance of the settlement. "Certainly the secretary hasn't had a chance to review it, and our fair housing office hasn't reviewed it," he said.
The tentative settlement involves a housing discrimination suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the city of Baltimore, charging that for years public housing tenants were intentionally segregated.
Mr. Ruppersberger took immediate exception to the idea of city officials negotiating their way out of the suit by offering to let the surrounding counties take in several thousand poor people.
But Barbara Samuels, a lawyer with the ACLU, said that if HUD does not approve the settlement, the ACLU will proceed with its suit -- which could, she warned, have far greater consequences.
"I think the alternatives are far worse for the counties," she said. "One alternative is that a court could -- and we would certainly ask them to -- require the Housing Authority and HUD to build public housing in the county.
"Instead, we have opted to work pragmatically through the private market in the most unobtrusive manner possible."
But Mr. Ruppersberger charged that the tentative settlement would only hurt race relations and damage older suburbs.
"This is not about race. This is about destroying the progress the county has made in our older communities, with our poor, and in getting African-Americans and whites to work together on our common problems," he said.
Mr. Ruppersberger, who said he would "do everything in my power" to stop the plan, yesterday began rounding up opponents to the settlement from within the county's black community.
Isaiah Hill, pastor of First Baptist Church of Back River in Essex, said the county is just starting to try to reverse decay in older, distressed communities such as Essex. "If these people are dumped into these neighborhoods, it can only be counterproductive," he said.
Chamille Wheeler, director of county's Department of Social Services, said she worries that the social services resources needed to help the poor will not follow the public housing tenants to the suburbs.
"We may not have enough child-abuse workers or in-home aid workers, and the schools are already overcrowded," she said.
In Baltimore County, where elections have been decided over the issue of public housing and where older communities are feeling the pressure of poverty and rising crime rates, news of the proposed settlement brought back the passion over a similar program last year, Moving to Opportunity.
The pilot program by the federal government and Baltimore used rent subsidies to move 285 poor families from inner-city neighborhoods to more prosperous areas in the suburbs. Opposition to the program often was couched in racial terms.
Yesterday, Mr. Ruppersberger and Mr. Cardin were especially critical of the administration of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for not including county officials in negotiations to settle the suit.
"Here is a man [Mr. Ruppersberger] who has done more to champion the cause of Baltimore City, and to exclude him from this process is totally, totally wrong," said Mr. Cardin, who represents portions of both the county and the city.
TC Mr. Schmoke refused to comment, but a spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, said Mr. Ruppersberger was not consulted because he was not a party to the lawsuit.
Not every suburban official reacted as strongly as Mr. Ruppersberger did.
While wary about the proposed settlement, Carroll County Commissioner Donald I. Dell said yesterday that he had "a middle-of-the-road attitude about it."
"People have to have a place to live, and if they can relocate some of these people into the community it will enhance our lives," he said. "There's some speculation that we would have criminal types coming out. I don't believe that. I think those people would be screened, and they would be good normal citizens. I don't know that I would encourage it, or say thumbs down on it either," he said.
However, Mr. Dell acknowledged that his views might not be shared by many residents in Carroll County, where there is an increasing anti-growth movement.
Under the tentative settlement, a nonprofit organization would be selected to run a counseling program and sell the idea to landlords in the city and surrounding suburbs. The earliest that families could begin using federal certificates to relocate is next summer.
The certificates would be restricted to neighborhoods in which no more than 10 percent of the residents are below the federal poverty line, and no more than 25.9 percent are minorities. The neighborhoods may not have more than 5 percent public housing or existing federal Section 8 rental subsidies.
As a result, the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods in Baltimore are ineligible, including many predominantly white areas.
Fears that most tenants would therefore move into older Baltimore County neighborhoods, such as Tall Trees and Riverside, are unfounded because the certificates are designed
to avoid that, Ms. Samuels argued.
"The irony is this settlement has been very carefully structured to ensure that neighborhoods that are lower income, declining economically or that are racially segregated are not going to be impacted," she said. "The older neighborhoods are not eligible for the use of these certificates by and large, and that was very carefully done."