Good riddance to city's high-rise housing projects

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SATURDAY'S implosion of the city's last public housing high-rises, Flag House Courts, is a milestone on the way to ending more than six decades of government-sponsored housing segregation in Baltimore.

From the 1930s, when Congress created public housing, until 1954, when the Supreme Court forbid segregation, Baltimore built public housing that was either "Negro" or "white" -- cruel monuments to Jim Crow. And the "Negro" housing was built exclusively in areas deemed undesirable by whites.

Even after 1954, whenever the city proposed a site somewhere other than the inner city, white neighborhoods erupted and the city caved every time, abandoning the sites.

By the early 1990s, more than 70 percent of Baltimore's public housing families still lived in projects built under Jim Crow. Newer projects also were built in minority neighborhoods already impoverished and poorly supported by public services. In the words of a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Andrew Cuomo, "The results of discrimination in the siting of public housing have been sadly predictable: opportunity denied, racial and economic isolation perpetuated and a mountain of civil rights litigation."

Imploding these monuments to Jim Crow is easy but in itself does nothing to cure the segregation and discrimination. The hard part is rebuilding in a way that does not simply repeat the mistakes of the past.

In 1995, the city prepared to demolish the four downtown high-rises, home to 2,700 families. Once again, sites for replacement units were limited to minority neighborhoods, most of them already desperately poor -- neighborhoods like Preston Street and Greenmount Avenue, where in the summer of 1994 several children were victims of drive-by shootings.

Action had to be taken.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued the city and HUD. Our goal? To press the city for replacement public housing throughout the metropolitan area so that some of our 14,000 client families would have a choice to live in neighborhoods with better schools, better access to jobs and a safer place to raise children.

In 1996, the city, HUD and public housing residents reached a compromise, a consent decree approved by the federal court, which takes a balanced approach to the demolition and replacement of Baltimore's high-rise inventory.

First, 1,100 units are being built on the high-rise sites and in other predominantly African-American areas of the city, most in mixed income settings.

Second, the city agreed to develop 40 rental units in mostly white and middle-class neighborhoods that had never had any public housing.

Third, the city and the counties agreed to a "special voucher" counseling program, offering families the choice of living in neighborhoods that offer better opportunities for their children while preventing the development of new concentrations of poverty.

And finally, there is an 814-unit demonstration program to make home ownership affordable to low-income families and mixed-income housing that will be operated by the private sector in metropolitan areas that are neither segregated nor poor.

Now, for the first time, low-income African-American families will have a choice. New or renovated homes, in real communities rather than projects, will be available for families who wish to remain in the city. Or families can move close to the jobs in burgeoning suburban growth areas.

Indeed, many low-wage workers who now travel two to three hours each day to suburban jobs will be able to cut their commutes and spend more time with their children. And suburban employers trying to cope with the shortage of workers for entry-level jobs will benefit, too.

Neighborhoods also are big winners because the agreement corrects the tendency of government and the market to concentrate low-income housing in weaker neighborhoods. The agreement carefully safeguards against this and requires that stronger neighborhoods be included. No neighborhood is being singled out; rather, areas that previously excluded public housing throughout the metropolitan region will be expected to share in the effort.

Putting aside the political rhetoric that has, from the beginning, swirled around this historic agreement, the consent decree is a win-win opportunity for poor families, the city and the region. Our joint success hinges on statesmanlike leadership from government officials willing to allay fears without compromising the constitutional right of public housing residents to move to neighborhoods of their choice.

But in the end it really will depend on all of us.

The overarching goal must be to end the isolation of public housing families, weaving them back into the fabric of our communities and the economic mainstream without recreating pockets of poverty and hopelessness. And most important, we must do it with an abundance of respect for both the families and neighborhoods into which they move.

Susan Goering is executive director of the ACLU of Maryland.

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