Ruppersberger says county has own problems


It is nearly an impossibility to imagine C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger more agitated than he was last week. He looked as if he wanted to punch out a building. Instead, he brought in as many people as possible to his Baltimore County executive's office to explain to them that he is not a racist.

He shouldn't have to do such a thing, but there it is. In the newest agreement between the city of Baltimore and the federal government, 1,342 families from inner-city public housing would be moved to better neighborhoods, mostly in suburbia, and Ruppersberger makes an interesting point: Shouldn't someone have consulted him before cutting such a deal?

But in the current climate, any such query is regarded as veiled racism. Those being moved are poor and black. Those neighborhoods into which they'll be moved are not so poor and not so black.

Ruppersberger thought he had a deal with Mayor Kurt Schmoke to keep these families in the city. He says he found out otherwise when his back was turned. He feels wounded. Ever since he took office nearly a year ago, he's talked of city-county cooperation. Now, this: the housing deal, and the talk of racism.

"I'm not gonna let anybody call me a racist," Ruppersberger said, glaring balefully across his office last week. "And I'm meeting with everybody who calls me one."

So far, the list has included mostly politicians and community leaders, to whom he's given the same message: He doesn't want the federal government, or anyone else, dictating county policy. He has aging neighborhoods already in big trouble, without adding new burdens. And, what makes anyone think these poor families will find happiness in suburbia?

Here is his problem: What he says has validity, but it seems to skip the heart of the matter, which he and everyone else knows, and no one likes to talk about. Those who are poor and black are having a terrible time in this country. While the civil rights movement of the past 40 years created a new black middle class, which has joined the American mainstream, the permanent underclass left behind is self-destructing at a heart-breaking rate, creating neighborhoods that are open sores.

Those in suburbia hear of such persons moving to their communities, and they're afraid. Does that sound like racism? Does it sound like echoes of earlier county executives who fought the exodus of black people from the city?

Here's an important difference: Baltimore County already has a rapidly growing black population. Within the decade, it will be about 30 percent black, even without the current housing deal. And, among those concerned about the move of poor black families are some families who are black and not poor. They left the city in the first place to escape some of those decaying neighborhoods.

"People think this county's lily white, and it isn't," Ruppersberger said. "We're the fastest-growing black population in the country. We have the second-highest poverty rate in the metro area. And we also have a tremendous backup on Section 8 housing, which nobody talks about."

In figures released last week, Ruppersberger pointed out there are more than 23,000 "very low income" renters in his county, and more than 10,000 "very low income households" in Baltimore and Baltimore County on the waiting list for Section 8 housing. Of those, 7,572 (about 50-50 racially) already live in the county. There's a "three- to five-year wait for people to come off this list." A year ago, the county applied for nearly 900 Section 8 certificates. Washington approved 50.

"Does that make any sense?" Ruppersberger asks. "Listen, I'm trying to play the race card down. I'm the first county executive to talk seriously about regionalism. I understand the needs of the city, because I grew up in the city, and because the city's problems are becoming the county's problems."

Much of this problem is addressed in a new book, "Baltimore Unbound: A Strategy for Regional Renewal," by David Rusk.

"In part, the severe economic ghettoization of poor blacks today is an unintended consequence of the success of the civil rights movement," Rusk writes. "Today, half of the Baltimore area's upper middle class black households live in suburbia. Fewer than one out of five continues to live in city areas with significant numbers of poor black neighbors. In some measure the growing isolation of poor blacks reflects choices made by middle class blacks."

But it cannot go on, Rusk argues. The burden of poverty must be shifted, or else the city will die and ultimately kill off the surrounding counties. The key, he writes, is "to require the entire metro region to become home of the metro area's poor on a 'fair share' basis."

"I wish he'd talked to me before he wrote it," Ruppersberger said. "In my mind, the city has 25,000 vacant homes. Why can't they be used for these families? Why can't there be a program where we train people to rehabilitate these homes and revitalize existing neighborhoods?"

Thus, we had Dutch Ruppersberger last week feeling furious and trying to explain that he is no racist.

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