Housing limbo


BY REFUSING to seriously engage in court-ordered settlement talks, the federal government is showing a lack of commitment to rectifying past racial discrimination against black public housing residents in Baltimore.

Last week, the magistrate overseeing negotiations between attorneys for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the American Civil Liberties Union called off the discussions because "one of the parties was not prepared to enter into substantive settlement negotiations." That's a diplomatic way of saying that HUD balked. HUD lawyers refused to participate in settlement discussions or even address remedies submitted by the ACLU in a lengthy written proposal. And they're still not talking.

This is an unacceptable response that shows complete disregard for residents affected by past discriminatory policies, and flouts a U.S. District Court ruling in January that said HUD violated fair-housing laws by concentrating black public housing tenants in the city's worst neighborhoods. The ruling resulted from a 1995 class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU that accused the city and HUD of perpetuating a segregated housing system begun in the 1930s.

Why is HUD so willing to reject an opportunity to close a disgraceful chapter of its past? If the Justice Department counseled its client to remain mum, it's the wrong tactic. Such stubbornness reflects badly on an agency charged with upholding the nation's laws. If HUD is the problem, officials should rethink its strategy. Ten years of legal wrangling should have been enough to move HUD toward middle ground. Instead of ending the long legal battle by negotiating, HUD is dragging the dispute back to the arena where it originally began - in court. What a shame that more time and money will be spent arguing over remedies instead of implementing them.

Meanwhile, Baltimore is still home to large concentrations of people of color living in poverty 70 years after segregated public housing polices were established. Even as other parts of the city undergo revitalization that is bringing in higher-income residents, HUD's delaying tactics perpetuate the problem that the lawsuit was meant to end - a city segregated by race and income.

The lawsuit has already changed the face of some of Baltimore's more desperate neighborhoods. A 1996 partial consent agreement brought down dilapidated, crime-plagued public housing high-rises in West Baltimore and replaced them with mixed-income rowhouse developments that are now appealing neighborhoods. This is visible proof of what can happen if HUD does right by aggrieved residents waiting to be part of this fledging urban renewal. They shouldn't have to wait another decade.

Both sides return to federal court Dec. 5. This gives HUD plenty of time to negotiate in good faith and reach an agreement that will better address the city's public housing challenges and long-term goals.

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