Hundreds of families living in some of Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods will get to move to better conditions under a proposed settlement that could finally resolve a fair housing case dating back to 1995.
Attorneys representing current and former public housing residents filed the settlement, which still has to be approved by a judge, in U.S. District Court late Friday.
They hope the agreement with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development will finally end more than 70 years of housing segregation that they say the government helped exacerbate.
The case arose when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland sued HUD, saying that it demolished old public housing high-rises where mostly African-Americans lived — only to move the residents to equally segregated housing and poor conditions in other parts of the city.
Attorneys for the residents said Friday that the government in effect "perpetually locked" African-American families in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, violating federal civil right laws. The settlement, which would cover all claims in the case, was filed in conjunction with Baltimore City and the Housing Authority of Baltimore City.
"We are happy the settlement's here," said Mel Freeman, executive director of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association. "This is great for families and neighborhoods."
Under the settlement, HUD will allocate an unspecified amount of money to expand a housing program that was created in the 1990s under a partial settlement and called for new housing opportunities for displaced public housing residents.
The Baltimore Housing Mobility Program has since moved more than 1,800 families to better neighborhoods in the city and the suburbs. The program also provides families with social services such as credit counseling, help with job placement, and transition services.
The settlement calls for using the program to move up to 400 families annually through 2018 — which could mean relocating more than 2,000 families.
Joshua Civin, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which joined the residents' case in 2006, said the housing mobility program has offered people the opportunity to live in safe neighborhoods with good schools.
"This voluntary program really has opened up opportunity for families to have … the same choices as everybody else in the Baltimore region," Civin said.
HUD issued a statement late Friday that said expanding the program would resolve the long-standing class action suit.
"Over the past decade, this voluntary program has provided families greater neighborhood choice so they can raise their children in safe communities with access to decent jobs and good schools that will open the pathways for a successful future," HUD said in its statement.
Reviews of the program have also found better health outcomes for the families who moved. Many moved to neighborhoods with better access to grocery stores and healthy food. Many children saw their asthma disappear when they moved to houses free of rodent feces.
Nicole Smith moved to Columbia from the Druid Hill area under the housing mobility program in 2009. She had been on the waiting list for Section 8 housing for several years when she was accepted into the program.
She picked Columbia because she wanted the best school possible for her son, who is now 11, she said. The area also is much safer for her son.
"It's very family-oriented," Smith said. "You always find a playground in the community."
Smith works for a before- and after-school program, and is studying early childhood education at Howard Community College. When she moved, she was struck by how quiet it was in Columbia.
Her old neighborhood was very loud, Smith said, adding, "It might have been crime, people out all night."
But when she got to her new apartment, "you could actually hear the crickets at night when you're going to sleep."
The lawsuit had lingered in court for years until 2005, when a federal judge sided with housing advocates, and ruled that federal officials should have looked beyond the borders of Baltimore to relocate the public housing residents.
But U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis didn't provide remedies for the problem — setting the stage for additional years of court proceedings.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the settlement was a positive development. It releases Baltimore and the city housing authority from a partial consent decree issued in the case in the 1990s, without adding additional significant financial burdens. The decree required up to 40 public housing rental units be placed in city neighborhoods to disperse the poor.
The lawsuit has also cost the city millions of dollars in legal fees and relocation expenses over the years.
"After nearly two decades of litigation and court-ordered restrictions, Baltimore is now able to move forward, put this lawsuit behind us, and work with HUD to increase fair housing opportunities for low-income families," she said in a statement.
Officials with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City said they are also glad the case is resolved.
"We are pleased that the issues resolved through the settlement … will increase choices for vulnerable families including building upon the success of the mobility program," Paul T. Graziano, executive director of the housing authority said in a statement. "This program has assisted hundreds of families in exercising housing options not previously available to them."
Member organizations of the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign, a coalition of housing advocates, applauded the decision.
Patrick Maier, executive director of the Innovative Housing Institute, which promotes quality affordable housing, said people often can't find such housing in growing areas where moderate-wage jobs are available.
The institute once helped manage the housing mobility program, and Maier said he saw firsthand how it changed people's lives.
"In many cases, they blossomed," he said. "Their children were able to play outside."