Tenants, counties wary about ruling

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anna Warren lives in the kind of poor, mostly black Baltimore public housing that a federal judge yesterday found unfair and maybe unconstitutional.

But if U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis' ruling eventually amounts to a ticket to the suburbs for city public housing tenants, Warren, for one, isn't interested.

"If they would ask me to get a voucher to go to the county, I would tell them, 'No, thank you. I like where I'm at and I like the city,'" said Warren, 68, who has lived in Northeast Baltimore's Claremont Homes since 1959 and worries about a lack of public transportation and social support outside the city.

"It isn't that we don't want a better way of living," she said. "But we don't want to be put somewhere and then we're stuck."

Garbis ruled yesterday that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development failed to comply with fair housing laws by concentrating public housing in poor, mostly black Baltimore neighborhoods.

While Garbis has yet to order a remedy, his ruling states that the problem could be addressed through "regionalization" - providing city public housing tenants with greater opportunities to live in the suburbs.

The ruling drew praise from Howard County Housing Commissioner Leonard S. Vaughan.

"I think he was correct that HUD's approach has been to try to resolve the problem in the city of Baltimore within the city," said Vaughan, who went to federal court yesterday to witness the ruling. Howard County was not a party to the suit.

Anger, confusion

But anger and confusion were the more common reactions elsewhere.

In Carroll County, where there is no public housing and a three-year wait for vouchers, Commissioner Dean L. Minnich called the decision "one more instance of interpreting the law in such a way as to promote social engineering and change the way Americans live."

"People who own rental housing in Carroll County want control over who lives in those homes so that their investment is secure," he said. "If you take options away from property owners, you will encourage people with wealth to stop offering housing.

"I can see landlords getting out of the business, and then there will be even less housing."

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens called it "judicial activism at its most dubious." She said she opposes moving city public housing tenants to the county, saying Arundel's poor should not be bumped down the local public housing waiting list to accommodate those from outside the county.

Long waiting list

As of July, 6,122 people were waiting for a housing unit to open up under Anne Arundel's housing voucher program, county officials said.

"People will wait for years, and to suddenly be told that someone else from outside ... will jump to the front of the line, I think that people would be very upset," Owens said. "And who's to say that people in Baltimore City want to come out to the 'burbs anyway?"

Former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who in 1994 helped to kill the expansion of a relocation effort for Baltimore public housing tenants, said the suburbs already have plenty of subsidized housing.

"I think if you look around, I think you'll find a lot of Section 8 in the counties," she said. "Cockeysville is full of it. Dundalk is full of it. I think Catonsville is full of it. I don't know what they're talking about. There's a lot of it in Baltimore County. It certainly isn't just in the city."

Four-term Carroll County Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said she could not recall any instance where discrimination prevented a housing project from going through.

"We followed the rules," she said. "If the federal agency has made a mistake, we will have to deal with it. The bottom line is, as long as you have a voucher, you can go anyplace to get a house."

No discrimination

Perry L. Jones, Carroll's first African-American commissioner, said the county has done what it could to encourage affordable housing, but the real estate market makes it difficult:

"We have 1,000 families on a waiting list and we are doing our part to help. I am not aware of any discrimination in housing, unless it [is] against the poor."

But Vaughan, the Howard housing commissioner, said the judge's remedies - to be decided soon - could help Howard with its own housing problems, which have worsened because of soaring home prices and rents. People who receive Section 8 housing vouchers increasingly can't afford rising rents in Howard's hot real estate market, and middle-income working people can't find affordable homes to buy.

"I see it as an opportunity to get additional resources to address a lot of the housing issues for people currently working and living in Howard County," he said. "We need to have resources to deal with working families who need housing."

Merrie Street, a spokeswoman for Harford County government, said county officials could not comment on the judge's decision until they had the opportunity to read it. A spokesman for Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. also said it was premature to comment.

Richard Doran, executive director of the Dundalk-based Community Assistance Network, said implementing significant change in how the poor are housed is going to be "tough."

"A judge can mandate a remedy, but families have to want to move," Doran said.

Warren, the city public housing resident, isn't pining for the suburbs even though Claremont Homes has changed from a safe, all-white complex to a nearly all-black, crime-ridden one in the 46 years since she moved in.

President of the housing authority's resident advisory board, Warren said it makes more sense to improve safety and other conditions at city public housing complexes than to move tenants to the suburbs.

Warren feels there are benefits to clustering residents where there are tenant councils to advocate for them. In the counties, they're more likely to be dispersed in market-rate complexes that accept Section 8 vouchers.

"They've got to be able to have somebody that they can [turn] to if they've got problems," Warren said. "I know we've got problems here in the city, but at least we're all together."

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Larry Carson, Lisa Goldberg, Mary Gail Hare, Joe Nawrozki, Sarah Schaffer and Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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