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Judge says suit alleging bias in public housing should proceed

A federal judge has ruled that a Baltimore public housing discrimination lawsuit should go forward, rejecting arguments from government lawyers that residents can freely choose whether to live in subsidized, often racially segregated, housing.

The distinction is important because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government agencies have a greater obligation to desegregate institutions where participation is not voluntary, such as attendance at public schools.

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"Of course there is no law that compels people to abide in public housing," U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said in a ruling Thursday. But as a practical matter, Garbis wrote, residents frequently have no other option: "For the economically disadvantaged, applying for public housing is very likely to be the only method of attaining livable shelter."

Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had asked that the long-running lawsuit - now scheduled for trial in December - be dismissed. Garbis' ruling said the case would proceed as scheduled.

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African-American families sued the government agencies in 1995, arguing that public housing patterns for decades had violated their constitutional right to fair housing.

The lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, came as planners in Baltimore prepared to tear down the city's aging high-rise public housing apartments. It has resulted in a court decree designed to give residents the opportunity to move out of impoverished, mostly black neighborhoods.


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