All Things Considered - NPR
January 2, 2004 Friday
Housing problems regarding racial segregation in Baltimore

MELISSA BLOCK, host: In Baltimore, a federal judge is considering a lawsuit that charges the city's housing authority with practicing racial segregation. The suit also names the Federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. Housing advocates say the problems in Baltimore echo in cities across the country. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting: Isaac Neal is a 66-year-old former school custodian who used to live in a notorious public housing project in Baltimore called Lafayette Courts. Drugs and violence were prevalent. Neal says he was forced to instruct his family how to avoid gunshots. It was, he says, no place to raise his two sons.

Mr. ISAAC NEAL (Former School Custodian): We had to teach our children to fall on the floor, fall on the floor and stay there. I mean, my baby boy tried to get up, and I had to really hold him, you know? And he was scared to death.

NAYLOR: Lafayette Courts has since been demolished, and Neal's family was given a rent voucher enabling them to move out of public housing. But all they were able to find on their own was a row house in another, not much better neighborhood. Asked where he'd like to live, Neal mentions one of the city's nicer neighborhoods.

Mr. NEAL: It's very quiet. My wife says she can breathe there, it's like real oxygen. And it's quiet. You don't see people all on the corners and you don't--only thing I've seen, when they was raking up their leaves. That's all I seen out in Mt. Washington.

NAYLOR: Neal contends the city's Housing Authority hasn't done enough to help low-income residents like him move into nicer, safer neighborhoods. He's a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed against the Housing Authority, charging it with having long sought to keep African-Americans segregated. The suit was filed in 1995 by the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Susan Goering is the group's executive director.

Ms. SUSAN GOERING (American Civil Liberties Union): We filed the lawsuit in the mid-'90s because we knew that a lot of housing was going to be demolished, and we knew that they were going to make the same mistakes they had made for the previous 70 years, and that is to build new public housing in the same areas, what I call deserts of opportunity, where there was really, you know, bad schools, bad streets, no interface with jobs. And we knew that was going to happen.

NAYLOR: The parties reached a partial settlement of the case in 1996, but earlier this year US District Judge Marvin Garbis found what he termed a plethora of evidence that racially discriminatory housing policies have continued in Baltimore and scheduled a trial. Activists say the problem of housing segregation afflicts many American cities. HUD's own studies have shown a pattern of segregation in public housing repeated across the nation, according to Margery Turner, a former HUD official now with the Urban Institute.

Ms. MARGERY TURNER (Urban Institute): It's certainly not unique to Baltimore. In cities all over the country, public housing has historically been segregated, with projects in which blacks live concentrated and often isolated in African-American neighborhoods, exacerbating not only segregation but the concentration of poverty as well.

NAYLOR: And there have been lawsuits in other cities as well. Perhaps the most successful was filed in Chicago in the mid-'60s. Called the Gautreaux case after one of the low-income plaintiffs, it forced housing officials there to come up with a new approach for finding housing for the poor. One of the solutions: Some 7,500 low-income families were given vouchers. Equally as important, they received assistance in the form of housing counseling, enabling them to find and move to middle-class white suburban neighborhoods outside the city. Alexander Polikoff was the lead attorney in the case.

Mr. ALEXANDER POLIKOFF (Attorney): Lots of studies done by academics of the experiences of those families showed that while there were problems, of course, by and large the families did a lot better in terms of employment and education and health. And, most importantly, the kids had better life prospects.

NAYLOR: The Gautreaux case led to an experimental HUD-funded program called Moving to Opportunity, where low-income public housing tenants in five other cities were given assistance to help them move into middle-class suburbs. Housing activists say the program worked, but it caused a ruckus in Baltimore, where some white suburban residents vociferously objected, and the program lost its funding. Susan Goering of the ACLU says a similar approach is necessary to end what some have called Baltimore's housing apartheid.

Ms. GOERING: Housing policy isn't just housing policy. It's education policy, it's health policy, it's work force policy, it's even criminal justice policy. Where we live affects almost everything about how we live.

NAYLOR: Officials with the Baltimore Housing Authority failed to respond to repeated requests for an interview. In court, the city solicitor said the plaintiffs have spent an inordinate amount of time re-creating the racial sins of this country. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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