The nation's housing chief supported in principle yesterday a proposed settlement of a desegregation lawsuit that calls for shifting 1,324 families from Baltimore's public housing to better neighborhoods mostly in the suburbs.
U.S. Housing Secretary Henry G. Cisneros described the plan as "a responsible way" to break up the nearly all-black concentrations of poor people in inner-city housing projects.
He said he hopes a decision on the agreement between the Baltimore Housing Authority and the American Civil Liberties Union can be reached in the next few days.
At the same time, however, political leaders from Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties extracted a promise from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the plan would not go forward until the five surrounding suburbs receive more details.
Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, the most outspoken opponent of the plan, said he was pleased. "We got the commitment we wanted," he said.
As one of the parties to the class-action suit brought by the ACLU, HUD has to sign off on the settlement, which would provide rental certificates to the 1,324 low-income families for use in more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods. The families' participation is voluntary.
Furious Baltimore County officials vowed a fight immediately after the plan was made public last week, saying it would hurt attempts to renew older neighborhoods and damage race relations.
Other suburban leaders also are skeptical of relocating public housing families to areas with limited public transportation and job-training programs.
Mr. Cisneros, who was in Baltimore yesterday to announce $4 million in grants to nine historically black colleges, said he hopes to ease fears and reach a consensus with county officials about the settlement. "I would hope that everyone will keep calm and lower our voices enough so fairness can be done," he said.
While cautioning that "the deal is not done," he said the agreement makes sense because it would reduce the segregated pockets of poverty that ring downtown. It also would allow the city to raze and redevelop its four dilapidated high-rise complexes.
The deal comes at a time when HUD still has the resources to provide the rental certificates that would be worth up to $9.4 million a year for the next 15 years.
"We want to proceed in a way that is judicious and fair," Mr. Cisneros said. "On the other hand, we believe in the final analysis this is the right thing to do."
Even as he commented on the proposed settlement yesterday afternoon, the leaders from Baltimore, Howard and Harford counties were meeting with HUD officials in Washington.
Several expressed satisfaction that HUD promised to provide more information on the accord. But one major hitch is that
Justice Department lawyers, who are reviewing the settlement, are reluctant to turn over key documents, including a copy of the agreement.
"I think that HUD now appreciates more fully the position the county would be put in by the proposed settlement," said Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker.
Baltimore County has retained the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly to help fight the settlement. Two members of the firm, including senior partner Gregory B. Craig, an influential former adviser to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, accompanied Mr. Ruppersberger, the Baltimore County executive, to yesterday's meeting.
Statistics show that most of the city residents who move to Baltimore County with federal Section 8 rental certificates end up in older communities, such as Woodlawn, Parkville and Essex, which the county is trying to revitalize.
But Mr. Cisneros suggested that the relocation of 1,324 families in a region of 2.4 million people would not create great problems.