For many of the 16,231 families in Baltimore's public housing, the promise of a decent place to live has vanished in the past two decades as drug dealers set up small empires, crime worsened and basic repairs went neglected.
Finally, some saw a way to move up and out as the city started to demolish its deteriorating high-rise projects. Now, 1,324 families could have a chance to leave for better neighborhoods through a proposed settlement of a desegregation lawsuit.
But first they have to convince their would-be neighbors.
The success of a far-reaching agreement made public Thursday between the city and the American Civil Liberties Union to break up the segregation of black families in inner-city housing projects depends on a tough sales job in the suburbs.
Already, the proposal faces fierce resistance in Baltimore County, where the county executive and two Maryland congressmen are fighting it. Other suburban leaders are wary, as are some landlords, whose participation is needed to make the program work.
"Clearly, a lot of it is going to depend on cooperation from our neighbors in the suburbs," said Baltimore Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.
The settlement, designed to remedy a 60-year history of housing policies that experts call the most blatantly discriminatory in the nation, is being promoted by an unlikely alliance of ACLU lawyers and city officials.
Each has a different interest. The ACLU, which filed a class-action suit in January against the city and federal governments, believes in the justice of giving black families confined for years to poor, segregated neighborhoods a chance to live elsewhere. The city wants to proceed with overhauling its four high-rise complexes, for which it already has lined up millions in federal and state aid that would be lost if the suit continued.
With deep budget cuts looming on Capitol Hill and some Republican lawmakers calling for abolishing the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development, the city does not want to risk the grants that are the foundation of the $293 million public housing revitalization.
Many families who have lived for generations at Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace, Flag House Courts and Murphy Homes want to return when the projects are redeveloped, Mr. Henson said.
As a result, city housing officials and ACLU lawyers moved quickly to try to reassure the suburbs that they will not suffer because of an influx of public housing tenants -- and to warn them that things could be worse.
ACLU attorney Barbara Samuels makes several arguments for the proposal to give 1,342 families certificates that subsidize rents in more expensive neighborhoods.
City survival at stake
"Baltimore as a city and region is not going to survive, is not going to be viable, as long as we have this serious problem of large concentrations of poverty in the city," she said.
Of the 16,231 families in public housing, 14,661 are African American, most single mothers of young children living on less than $6,000 a year. Sixty-seven percent of the region's poor live in Baltimore, often in the densely populated, deteriorating areas.
Another point she makes is that the settlement was designed to spare older, struggling neighborhoods. The rental certificates will restricted to neighborhoods in which no more than 10 percent of the residents live below the poverty line, no more than 25.9 percent are minorities, and there is no more than 5 percent subsidized housing.
Very few city neighborhoods meet the standards, except
upscale places such as Mount Washington and Roland Park. The limits also rule out lower-income areas in the suburbs.
Yet Ms. Samuels also is warning that blocking the settlement could lead to more dire consequences. If the suit continues, "the alternatives are far worse for the counties," she says, because the ACLU would ask the court to order that public housing be built throughout the region.
Mr. Henson, who met with housing officials from the five surrounding counties Friday, is promoting that "mobilization plans" have been successful elsewhere, including Chicago and Dallas.
The settlement, which is subject to the approval of HUD and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, is patterned after one in Chicago that helped more than 5,500 black public housing families move into 130 suburbs. Studies of the Gautreaux Plan, named for the public housing tenant who sued in 1966, found the families had higher incomes, more stable lives and their children performed better in school.
Mr. Henson also says fears were unfounded about Moving to Opportunity, an experimental federal program that was not expanded after an outcry in eastern Baltimore County a year ago. Once the publicity was over, he said, 285 public housing families moved to more affluent areas with little fanfare.
But political leaders in Baltimore County disagree about the program's success and liken the proposed settlement to "a giant MTO." U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican, called it "quota-driven, race-based, Section 8-style housing policy at its worst," and vowed a "big-time" fight.
Race is the subtext to the emotionally charged debate over the key condition of the settlement -- to replace half of the 2,700 residences in Baltimore's high-rise complexes with Section 8 rental certificates.
It comes at a time of racial tensions over everything from the O. J. Simpson verdict to campaign appeals during the recent Baltimore mayoral primary.
"This whole issue of race and class, which is not being discussed, is clearly behind the concern about people moving from the city to the suburbs," said Annapolis Alderman Carl O. Snowden, a civil rights leader. "The city is majority black, the suburbs are majority white, and there are many people who have seriousmisperceptions."
If the relocation plan survives the opposition, it could turn on unanswered questions, including how many landlords would participate, how many public housing tenants want to move to the suburbs, and how many apartments are available for $650 to $800 a month, the general limit.
A half-dozen property managers and landlords randomly surveyed last week refused to discuss renting apartments to poor people with federal certificates.
The first step, under the settlement, is to create a $2 million counseling program to recruit landlords and offer assistance to the families moving.
LaRaye Holcomb, a mother of three who moved out of public housing in a crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood to Columbia, experienced firsthand how many suburban property owners do not want to rent to a Section 8 family.
"It was really hard. So many people said, 'I don't want to participate in the program,' and some were really rude," she recalled.
But she was determined to leave her grim place in Johnston Square. Her 12-year-old twins, Gavin and Gayna, and 5-year-old Jonique, could not go outside because of the gunfire.
"We were like prisoners. It was unreal," she said.
After a long search, she found a landlord who agreed to try the Section 8 program for the first time. Now, she is living in a comfortable town house, and her children ride their bikes and skate for hours after school.
It's not an uncommon experience, according to national experts who track court-ordered desegregation of public housing.
"Although in many cases, there has been outcry and opposition in the beginning, once the programs are in effect, no one has problems with them," says Florence Roisman, a professor at Widener University School of Law.
In Dallas, Texas, a discrimination suit filed 10 years ago against the Dallas Housing Authority and city officials met strong resistance from white communities, as well as local politicians.