Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A long way to go...

I'm going to try my best to keep this post reasonable in length, but, as I'm just sitting down to write it, I make no promises.

As you probably don't know, there's been an ongoing legal battle in Baltimore over where to relocate thousands of the city's public housing residents, almost all of whom live near or below the poverty line. It all began 11 years ago with a class action lawsuit that "charged that the city and the federal government had failed to dismantle the segregated system of public housing they set up in the 1930s and 1940s, thereby relegating public housing tenets to the city's most distressed neighborhoods."

Last January, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development "violated federal fair housing laws by failing to take a regional approach to provide opportunities for black public housing families to live outside poor, segregated city neighborhoods." Which brings us to the present.

Lawyers for Baltimore public housing residents are asking a federal judge to order the creation of 3,000 new low-income housing units and an additional 3,750 housing vouchers, mostly in well-off suburban neighborhoods with good schools and access to jobs.

The request comes 14 months after the judge found 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 city public housing.

It asks the federal agency to provide tenants with 675 new "housing opportunities a year over the next decade to reduce the effects of decades of discriminatory actions."

Whether the judge accepts the proposal or crafts his own solution to the discrimination he has found, the case highlights one of the Baltimore region's most vexing and contentious issues - how to dilute the concentration of poverty in the city.
There is no doubt that poverty breeds poverty, and housing alone is not enough. Although I am a strong support of working for positive neighborhood change, the reality is that it takes many years, generations even, before the cycle can be broken. In the meantime, we must ask ourselves if it is best to leave families in distressed neighborhoods or provide them a relatively easy exit to somewhere else, somewhere where opportunities are greater. On the one hand, you need residents to bring about change, but on the other, you risk sacrificing the futures of many waiting for changes that may not come. There is no easy answer, but certainly those who want a change -- but need help doing so -- should be given that chance.

However, they often don't get that chance because of policies like HUD's and Baltimore's that essentially force these families to stay put. And the argument for this institutionalized segregation is always the same -- there's nowhere else for them to go.

The proposed order is drawing opposition and skepticism from Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and some suburban leaders, and it is being vigorously contested by lawyers for HUD, who say it is "entirely uncalled for" and "simply not practical."

..."We want to be as clear as possible that we don't consider those neighborhoods to be communities of opportunity where these families should live," said Andrew W. Freeman, a private civil rights lawyer who is working on the case with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"We want them to move to places that can make a huge difference to these families and no noticeable difference to the neighborhoods where they live."

Nonetheless, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith is concerned about the effects of a judicial mandate.

"Moving poverty from one jurisdiction to another simply makes no sense," Smith said in a statement.

"It has already proven to be failed public policy, and I am not sure why we would revisit that issue. Although Baltimore County is not part of this lawsuit, we will be ready to fight any program that negatively impacts families in Baltimore County."

O'Malley denounced what he called the "old bigotry that the city is by its nature a bad place."

"I think the ACLU would serve their clients and the cause of justice and fairness better if they directed their energies toward creating work force housing inside the city ... rather than pushing our people into the suburbs," O'Malley said.
Wow. Where to start? How about O'Malley's point about creating work force housing inside the city. Yes, there are more housing options for people of all incomes inside the city. Nobody's contesting that. But decent housing and safe neighborhoods hard to find if you are living in poverty (the current poverty rate for a family of four is less than $20,000). And many of these families clearly want a fresh start somewhere else. They want more employment opportunities. They want better schools. They want safer streets. And they know they often can't find all that they are looking for in the city. Which is precisely why we have housing assistance programs that allow for mobility, that allow them more choices for where they want to live.

But do these choices matter? According to housing expert James Smith (he is the Baltimore County Executive in his spare time), no. Do families benefit from moving out of poverty-stricken neighborhoods and into the suburbs? Let's see what a real expert has to say.
Results of the Gautreaux program show that residential integration can further the aims of improving employment, education, and social integration of low-income blacks. The suburban move greatly improved adults' employment rates, and many adults got jobs for the first time in their lives. The suburban move also improved youth's education and employment prospects. Compared with city movers, the children who moved to the suburbs are more likely to be (1) in school, (2) in college-track classes, (3) in four-year colleges, (4) in jobs, and (5) in jobs with benefits and better pay. The suburban move also led to social integration, friendships, and interaction with white neighbors in the suburbs.
That is from Changing the Geography of Opportunity by Expanding Residential Choice: Lessons from the Gautreaux Program by James E. Rosenbaum, a study of an almost identical situation 30 years ago in Chicago.

Now that we've settled the debate over whether families actually benefit from dispersion, what other "issues" do officials from the communities opportunities have with accepting public housing families? Here's what our head honcho had to say.
Howard County Executive James N. Robey "would be comfortable welcoming individuals for a program set up that way," said spokeswoman Victoria Goodman. But she added that the county's high cost of housing "does not make it practical for the program here."
Since it's a federally funded program, cost shouldn't be much of a factor. After all, our federal budget is pushing $1 trillion, surely there's enough in there to subsidize rents for a few thousand families who have been subjected to federally sanctioned discrimination, right?
But in court papers filed Friday, lawyers for HUD said the proposal would impermissibly interfere with the agency's discretion over its programs and improperly force it to threaten a cut-off of funds to suburban jurisdictions that have been found to violate any laws.

HUD's lawyers also contend the court cannot order the agency to spend additional money that would be needed to create the housing called for in the proposed remedy.

"While plaintiffs do not acknowledge this point, their proposed remedy would clearly require enormous sums of money to implement," they wrote.
This is the biggest load of BS I've read today -- and I read a lot of BS on daily basis. Of course it's going to cost money. The federal government actively discriminated against thousands of its own citizens, which is, among other things, illegal. Making things right isn't going to happen for free.

There's a final wrinkle in this case that is worth looking at. In the past, plaintiffs in similar cases have reached agreements with HUD for appropriate remedies. Negotiating, however, is a thing of the past (administration).
Florence Roisman, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law who specializes in the study of housing discrimination, said HUD's stance in these cases has changed over the past several years.

"In the Clinton administration, HUD was settling these cases," she said. "HUD acknowledged it had acted unlawfully and did things to relieve that. With the change in administrations, HUD now is not acknowledging it was responsible for segregation. HUD is digging in its heels."
I'm exasperated at this point and don't want to turn this into a political issue. Because it's not. It's a matter a justice. That HUD has changed its position on whether its responsible for the segregation is about as low and slimy as you can get. It's enough to make even a liberal hate government.

Since this is a blog about Howard County, I should probably tie all of this in to our community in some way that's productive. Well, we talk about affordable housing all the time in Howard County. We talk about the need for all types of housing to serve all types of residents. We talk about the benefits of living in a decent home in a strong community with great schools and a tight social fabric. But mostly, we're talking about "moderate" and "middle" income families who make decent money but just can't seem to afford their way past our gates. We don't really talk about poverty and low-income housing.

But we should.

Providing housing for families living in poverty is the first step out of the endemic despair and hopelessness of their current situation. But first we have to allow them to take that first step, which won't happen if our leaders don't even bother addressing the issue with more than platitudes.

Any discussion of housing for the very poor in Howard County is likely to generate significant fear and, unfortunately, veiled bigotry. The reasoning is that by opening our community to "those people" we'll open the floodgates, and all of the ills of distressed neighborhoods -- crime, drugs, etc -- will come rushing in. Anyone who puts any stock into this shows a remarkable and upsetting lack of faith in our community.

The fact is that Howard County is one of the strongest communities in the region. We are not above "real" problems, but we have foundation that makes us better equipped to deal with these issues than many other jurisdictions. We pride ourselves on diversity and on the strength that it brings. And those of us who buy into the whole Columbia "vision" know that we have an obligation to foster a community that is welcoming, accepting, and promotes the general welfare of all its residents.

So, it looks like this is a pretty straightforward situation. We have a community of opportunity, albeit one that is becoming more exclusive and less welcoming. Meanwhile, there are thousands of families who need nothing more than a chance and a change. Seems like a good match, no?

"There can be only one clear objective of a civilization: to grow better human beings, to stimulate and evoke their gifts, strengthen the fulfillments of the individual in his sense of self and his relationship to mankind."
--James Rouse

1 comment:

brek said...

Being a blood relative of hayduke, its nice to see a piece that addresses a bit of whats going on where i live. I'm amazed at O'Malley. I know the "conventional wisdom" these days is that the judiciary branch is worthless and out of touch, but I take note when a judge says discrimination has existed in this manner for 60 years. He's got a HUGE chip on shoulder to think this is bigotry about Baltimore City. By its nature, its not a bad place...BUT..

76% of black males do not graduate high school (you learn this stat in the beginning of the MUST SEE movie Boys of Baraka, and.....

from the Center for American Progress: "By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students."

Although I grew up in the suburbs, the people I know that grew up in the city -- black, white, poor, and not-so-poor -- not ONE of them went to public school in Baltimore.


O'Malley is insane to think that its just fine to be a poor, minority, living in a drug infested neighborhood in this city. The bigotry exists in denying these people a real chance at life because it might hurt your shot at governor.

For more serious discussion about low income children, children who are often neglected by many conservative AND liberal commmentators .... www.dailyhowler.com