Eager to attract immigrants to a city they've bypassed for decades, Baltimore is offering a limited number of $3,000 grants to Hispanics who buy houses here.
Legal scholars and others - ranging from conservative critics of affirmative action and advocates for Asian-American rights to fair housing experts and the local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - question whether the offer is legal.
The grants stem from Mayor Martin O'Malley's ambition to increase Baltimore's immigrant population. The money will be available to Hispanics, however, regardless of whether they are new arrivals to the United States. The grants have no income limits and can be used to buy a house selling for up to $300,000.
"They're going to revitalize our city," said Jose O. Ruiz, O'Malley's liaison to the Hispanic community. "They're hard workers. They pay taxes and never complain. Let's reach out to them."
Many observers applaud the city's efforts to attract more Hispanics through a variety of programs, including two recent home-buying seminars in Spanish. But some think setting aside grant money goes too far.
"If the city just decided we're going to give money to white people or black people, you'd say, 'Wait a minute. There's an equality issue here,'" said David Bogen, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in Washington, praised the program's goal but questioned its legality.
"I've never heard of such a thing," she said, noting that minority contracting programs normally benefit "a wide variety of folks" who are considered disadvantaged, not one particular group. "It's extraordinary. And whether it would pass legal scrutiny, I'm not sure."
While courts have upheld some race-based college admissions policies and minority contracting programs (including Baltimore's), those are generally premised on remedying past discrimination, Bogen said.
"Absent any kind of court order or settlement to remedy past discrimination, the Fair Housing Act generally prohibits giving any kind of preference based on race or national origin in any housing-related transaction," said Bryan Greene, director of policy for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.
Immigrants shun city
What Baltimore is trying to remedy is a half-century-old immigration pattern. The city that was once a magnet to the foreign-born has become a place they avoid, settling instead in other areas with more jobs, better schools and better public transportation.
Less than 6 percent of Baltimore's population is foreign-born, about half the national figure. Census figures show the number of immigrants in Baltimore has been flat, at about 30,000, since 1970. In surrounding suburbs, the number has jumped fivefold, to 117,000, since then.
That's a problem, according to O'Malley and a November 2002 Abell Foundation report, because immigrants could help check the city's population loss, create a more diverse population and revitalize parts of Baltimore.
"The mayor's office has made the promotion of immigrant migration to Baltimore a high priority as one of the tools for rebuilding Baltimore's neighborhoods and building the tax base and stabilizing communities," said Ken Strong, director of the Office of Home Ownership in the city's Department of Housing and Community Development, which is offering the grants.
"In other cities that have turned around their loss of population, the key to the success of turning that around was attracting immigrants to their cities," Strong said.
The grants, which must be repaid to the city if the homeowner resells within five years, are being offered under a broader program to increase homeownership in Baltimore. The city is offering grants to the first 50 people - regardless of race or ethnicity - who close on a house after participating in trolley tours of neighborhoods in the western portion of the city on Saturday.
An additional 15 grants are being set aside for Latinos who participate.
Ruiz says it's only fair to designate some of the money for Hispanics because language barriers have kept them from taking advantage of city home-buying programs until recently.
Since 1998, the city has offered $3,000 grants to buyers of any background at twice-yearly tours organized by Live Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes city living. The tours have always been in English until September, the last time they were offered, when there was also a version for Spanish-speakers. Also for the first time in September, some of the grants were designated for Hispanics.
"We're behind," Ruiz said. "Let's catch up. They haven't been able to take advantage of those programs. They've been living here. They're entitled to it but they never applied because nobody has ever reached out to them."
Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for O'Malley, said that "dozens of cities have Latino homeownership programs." He said he did not know if those programs provided outright grants to Hispanics, or merely assistance in navigating the home-buying process.
Driven by media
Kearney also noted that Baltimore's grants to Hispanics did not raise any eyebrows when they were first offered in September. "This happened in the fall and no one complained," he said. "This is one of those stories driven by the press, not by actual people."
In addition to Hispanics, the city is making an extra effort to reach potential home-buyers who are Jewish by holding a tour for people who cannot attend the Saturday event for religious or other reasons. That tour will take place May 10.
The city will offer 10 grants for people who participate in that tour, since buyers from the earlier tour would have a two-day advantage. But those grants are not formally restricted to Jews.
David Conn, director of government relations and public policy for the Baltimore Jewish Council, said he appreciated the city's sensitivity toward the Saturday Sabbath and did not object to the grants for Hispanics.
"The Jewish community has always been supportive of efforts to attract immigrants and supportive of immigration to Baltimore," he said. "This one program is not the be-all and end-all of the city's efforts to reach out to all sorts of populations, including the Jewish population and immigrants from the former Soviet Union."
While also voicing support for the city's intentions, John Yang, president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association in Washington, said the program might be on shaky legal ground.
"If they made factual findings that this [group] had been discriminated against in the past and that was part of their [city's] history, then the case for set asides is quite clear," he said. "In the absence of those findings, whether or not it is [legal] I think is an open question."
David Gersten, executive director of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative public policy organization, had no doubt that the program was unconstitutional.
"The [Constitution's] equal protection clause would guarantee that no one would be discriminated against," Gersten said. "If you are not a Latino, you are being discriminated against by not having the option of gaining this $3,000 grant."
James Gimpel, an associate professor of government at the University of Maryland, College Park, wondered about the political wisdom of such a plan in a city that is 65 percent black and less than 2 percent Hispanic.
"When I see this kind of strange stuff happening, I look north to Baltimore and wonder where the black leadership is," he said.
Reaction from black leaders was mixed. G.I. Johnson, president of the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, said the offer was discriminatory. He said the city should try to encourage homeownership without regard to race or ethnicity. "It's about opportunities for all people," Johnson said.
But John White, a national spokesman for the NAACP, had no objections. "We think anything that can be done to increase homeownership of minorities is a great thing," he said.