Judge seeks accord in housing bias case

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Saying an "agreed resolution" was preferable to more protracted litigation, a federal judge named a former Maryland attorney general and a former state legislator yesterday to help craft a settlement in a decadelong housing discrimination case.

But if an agreement isn't reached, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said that he will hold hearings in July to decide a remedy for his finding this month that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to the desegregation of public housing in Baltimore.

The Housing Settlement Advisory Panel will be led by former Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs and former state Del. Anne S. Perkins. In a brief order, Garbis said he hoped the panel would include input from county leaders in the region.

Perkins, who represented North and Northeast Baltimore in the House of Delegates from 1979 to 1992, has been a court-appointed special master overseeing a partial decree in the case. Sachs, state attorney general from 1979 to 1987, has headed a citizens advisory council on the decree.

Garbis said the panel would assist U.S. Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar "as he attempts to guide the parties to a mutually beneficial resolution of the litigation."

Garbis set July 18 as the date for a bench trial to determine what HUD should do to remedy the effects of its past actions. He said the hearings could take up to a week and a half. But he pointed out that any decision he reached would be subject to the "uncertainties and delays" of possible appeals.

"It is perfectly obvious that all citizens of the Baltimore region will be better served if the parties can reach an agreed resolution and avoid the extensive litigation process," Garbis wrote. "There is a chance for the parties, by agreement, to take a significant step towards a greater degree of racial fairness and societal equity."

In pushing the parties toward a possible agreement, Garbis is following a pattern in similar housing cases around the country, in which a settlement was reached after a judge had issued a finding of liability but before the court mandated a solution.

The Baltimore case began in 1995, when the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit on behalf of the city's African-American public housing residents, contending that the city and the federal government failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing they put in place in the city in the 1930s and 1940s.

A partial settlement of the case was reached in 1996, requiring the city and HUD to provide opportunities for about 2,000 city families in public housing to move to mostly white, middle-class areas throughout the region through rental certificates and new and rehabilitated housing. About 600 such opportunities have been created.

But extensive efforts to settle the rest of the case failed to produce an agreement, and the case went to trial in December 2003. In his Jan. 6 ruling that found HUD liable for violating the federal Fair Housing Act, Garbis absolved the city of wrongdoing.

Perkins suggested yesterday that the possibility of a court-imposed remedy could help foster an agreement where none was reached in the past. She said the makeup of the advisory group was yet to be determined, but said it would include "not just people from the city but from the region."

"Everyone will work to settle the case if we can," said plaintiffs' attorney Andrew W. Freeman. "If we can't, I'm sure both sides will be prepared to go to trial."

Charles Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, which represented HUD, said the department does not comment on pending litigation.

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