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Baltimore's segregated housing

Baltimore invented the tools and tactics of housing segregation a century ago, through restrictive zoning and later, when that was ruled unconstitutional, restrictive covenants. Even after overt, legally sanctioned housing segregation was formally outlawed in 1968, the city's political and business establishment continued to support policies that had the effect of maintaining the status quo. "Red-lining" and "blockbusting" not only made it more difficult for blacks to move out of the poorest areas of the city but rendered the long-term decline of those communities almost inevitable. That legacy is a big part of the explanation for how neighborhoods like Freddie Gray's Sandtown-Winchester got the way they are.

The persistence of racially segregated housing patterns in Baltimore and other cities across the country is one of the last great pieces of unfinished business of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s, and it continues to throw a dark shadow over the future of African-Americans trapped in impoverished urban neighborhoods. That is why the Obama administration this week announced new rules that would require communities to take positive steps to remove barriers to fair housing and address the inequalities that have fueled racially charged violence.

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The new regulations aim to fulfill a core mission of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to "affirmatively further" fair housing practices, a mandate that was never enforced in practice. Under the new rules, towns and cities would have to study the impact of discriminatory housing practices on access to jobs, schools and public transportation, then come up with strategies to expand access to fair housing. Cities could build more affordable housing units in mixed neighborhoods, for example, or increase the number of housing vouchers that allowed residents to move to more desirable suburban communities.

In announcing the new policy, HUD Secretary Julian Castro specifically cited Baltimore as the kind of place in need of reform, but the city isn't exactly rushing to embrace the policy innovations. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake hasn't publicly commented on the new rules, and city housing officials have had a measured reaction. They say they are examining the administration's new policies and are already working with other jurisdictions and private groups to put together a regional action plan. The goal is to come up with a program that includes both "place-based investments" in struggling inner city neighborhoods, like Sandtown-Winchester, and "mobility" grants that allow low-income residents to use housing vouchers to move to communities where there are more opportunities for themselves and their children.

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In a world where HUD was flooding cities with money, that might make sense, but given that the administration's new policies do not appear to be accompanied by new funding, it's hard to see how that will work on any kind of meaningful scale. In the 1970s, federal Housing and Urban Development Department funding to Baltimore totaled some $168 million in today's dollars. That's declined to about $18.5 million this year.

Conservative opponents of the administration's plan argue that it is a form of "social engineering" on the part of the federal government that will force white suburbs to change their racial makeup. But the racial makeup of suburbs in Maryland is already changing as more African-Americans, Asians and Hispanics move out of cities. That's made the suburbs more racially and ethnically diverse, but the process hasn't worked the other way around: Few whites move into impoverished black neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act has integrated white communities, but black neighborhoods have become more segregated than ever in the years since its passage.

More perplexing are the liberal critics who complain that providing higher value housing vouchers for those who choose to live in more expensive neighborhoods while reducing the value of vouchers for those who live in less expensive areas, a policy that HUD has tried in Dallas and is seeking to expand, would only further disinvestment in places like inner city Baltimore. But decades of the current policies have not led to either revitalization or integration of those neighborhoods, and there's no reason to believe they ever will. Meanwhile, the research showing the economic, educational and health benefits of moving from a poor neighborhood to a wealthier one is overwhelming.

The status quo can't continue. Baltimore needs to adopt affordable housing requirements with teeth (the current law has been an all but complete failure), embrace variable housing vouchers that enable and encourage recipients to move to better neighborhoods even if that means they leave the city, and push for a state law prohibiting landlords from discriminating based on a renter's source of income. Baltimore has the sad distinction of having been a leader in the development of discriminatory housing practices. Now it needs to be a leader in reversing them.

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