Bid to move poor hits GOP snag Ehrlich would cut money for relocating high-rise residents; 'Spreading poverty'?; Plan seeks to defund settlement of suit over housing bias

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The number of families affected by an ACLU public housing lawsuit was stated incorrectly in The Sun yesterday. The number is 1,342.

+ The Sun regrets the errors.

WASHINGTON -- House Republican leaders have agreed to bar the use of federal money to move public housing tenants from Baltimore City to the suburbs as part of the settlement of a lawsuit against the city, Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday.

The proposed settlement of the housing discrimination suit, announced last month, calls for giving 1,324 families federal rent-subsidy certificates to move from inner-city housing projects mostly suburban neighborhoods.

The settlement is intended to break up the nearly all-black concentrations of poor people in Baltimore's public housing.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Baltimore County Republican, said the House leadership had agreed "to make sure that whatever terms are agreed to [in the settlement], they can't implement it."

Under the agreement, "language will be inserted into the [Department of Housing and Urban Development appropriations] bill that will defund the settlement," he said.

The House Republican leaders he named could not be reached for comment, but several Republican aides said that while the issue has been discussed, no "final decision" has been made.

House and Senate negotiators are scheduled to meet next week work out differences between their versions of the spending ++ bill, which also includes money for the Department of Veterans Affairs and some independent agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

Senate negotiators must agree to the language for it to become part of the bill.

Mr. Ehrlich said he was "cautiously optimistic" that his proposal would survive in the final measure sent to the president.

He released proposed legislative language that would block the use of federal money to move public housing tenants from the city to Baltimore County as part of the settlement.

Asked why other counties were not included in his proposal, he said, "It's our plan, our hope, our request" that they be included in the final language.

"It's bad policy to cure poverty by spreading poverty," Mr. Ehrlich said.

"I was sent to Washington to stop this stuff."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland filed suit on behalf of six public housing residents in January.

The lawsuit sought a court-ordered remedy to a 60-year history of Baltimore housing policies that experts call among the most discriminatory in the nation.

Under the agreement, the city could demolish and redevelop its four high-rise projects.

Half the 2,700 residences are to be replaced with specialized rental certificates.

The certificates could be used only in 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 little subsidized housing.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said last night that he had expected a move to block the necessary funding for the plan.

But he noted that the court could still require the federal government to pay for rental certificates in the future to remedy the pattern of segregation documented by the ACLU.

"Baltimore, unfortunately, still has a lot of segregated neighborhoods, and to find integrated neighborhoods or neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white, you have to go outside the city limits," he said.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Maryland, warned last night that the consequences of blocking the settlement could be more dire.

The ACLU is prepared to press its lawsuit and ask the court to order that public housing be built throughout the metropolitan area.

"This type of program is needed to redress historical segregation and the needs of a growing urban area. Killing it would be sad for the Baltimore region," Mr. Comstock-Gay said.

""We continue to hold out hope that this isn't what happens."

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Schmoke said fair-housing laws leave the city with little choice but to use rental certificates to replace some of the 2,700 residences in the four public high-rise projects that are being torn down.

The city plans to redevelop Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace, Flag House and Murphy Homes, all of which have been dominated by deteriorating high-rise towers, on a much smaller scale with rowhouses.

"We can't take families out of public housing and put them into impacted areas with high racial concentration or high poverty," Mr. Schmoke said.

As a result, he said, the city simply cannot replace the high-rise residences by renovating its abandoned, boarded-up homes -- a strategy advocated by some county political leaders.

Mr. Schmoke said he made the same suggestion in the past, but it was rejected by HUD officials because most of the vacant homes in the city are in older, generally poor and predominantly black neighborhoods.

Mr. Schmoke and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III are heading to Washington today for a national summit on rental subsidies for poor people, which the mayor acknowledged are unpopular in many neighborhoods.

Admitting that the federal Section 8 rental certificates are a "curse word" in many neighborhoods, Mr. Schmoke called tenant counseling the key to the plan to shift families from inner-city housing projects to the suburbs.

"People view it as being a disruptive influence and are not distinguishing between families for whom it has been a help, and those families who have taken it and simply have not worked well in the neighborhoods," he said.

Neighborhood leaders have complained about crime, litter and noise from some families who move in with the Section 8 rental certificates.

But housing advocates say the program, which has been in place for years, generally works well.

The proposed settlement calls for a $2 million fund to provide counseling to the 1,324 families who receive the rental certificates.

"When you stop to think about it, if you have lived in a high-rise most of your life, there's a pattern of living that's so different than being in a single-family detached house," Mr. Schmoke said, mentioning everything from taking care of a lawn to curbside trash collection.

"It's not patronizing. It's just going to help folks."

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