History: Housing Policy and Segregation in Baltimore

History: Housing Policy and Segregation in Baltimore

In what could prove to be a landmark case for public housing, the 2005 ruling in the class action lawsuit Thompson v. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found the department guilty of violating the Fair Housing Act by concentrating African-American public housing residents in poor, segregated areas of Baltimore City. 

The case, currently in court to decide the appropriate remedy, could radically change Federal housing policies that have left Baltimore one of 16 “hyper-segregated” metropolitan areas in the nation by 1990. 

The case was filed by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1994 on behalf of African-American public housing residents.  After their homes were destroyed in a wave of high-rise public housing demolitions in the 90’s, the residents were left with a relocation plan that limited their housing options to other segregated areas of the city. 

The ACLU alleged the local and federal housing officials engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination, in violation of the Constitution, and that the defendants did not take required action to ameliorate the effects of intentional race-based discrimination.  The District Court found that while the city and local housing authority had no power to develop housing outside the city, HUD failed to consider regionally oriented desegregation and integration policies in Baltimore, in violation of its mandate under the Fair Housing Act to promote fair housing affirmatively.  

In the court’s own words, HUD had an obligation “to do something more than simply refrain from discriminating,” and that “hrough regionalization, HUD had the practical power and leverage to accomplish desegregation....”  Furthermore, “This Court finds it no longer appropriate for HUD, as an institution with national jurisdiction, essentially to limit its consideration of desegregative programs for the Baltimore region to methods of rearranging Baltimore’s public housing residents within the Baltimore City limits.”  Such remarks bear a chilling resemblance to the 19th-century German political thinker Friedrich Engels’ theory on housing, from his 1872 The Housing Question, which concludes that social problems in cities aren’t really solved but simply moved to somewhere more politically acceptable to those who hold the reigns of power. 

A History of Segregation 

   During the trial, the ACLU presented a chronology of public housing policies in Baltimore, beginning in the 1930’s with federal “slum clearance” and public housing programs.  Before then, Baltimore African-Americans lived all over the city and surrounding counties.  

But the federal programs restricted them to segregated and economically depressed neighborhoods.  By the mid-1930’s, 89% of Baltimore’s 

African-American population was confined to an area surrounding the downtown central business district. 

From that point on, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) basically ran two housing programs (and legally so), one African-American and one Caucasian.  For example, between 1937 and 1943, the city and federal government built seven officially segregated public housing projects that were explicitly selected to reinforce patterns of existing neighborhood segregation.  The federal government even went so far as to admit that its purpose was actually “not slum clearance but rather using the projects to block the Negro from encroaching upon white territory.”  Also during this time period, the Afro-American newspaper proposed suburban sites that were cheaper than the federal program’s, but these were never considered. 

After World War II, Baltimore City continued its segregationist programs and expanded its methodology with the introduction of public housing high-rises.  In 1950, the City Council restricted most public housing to inner-city slum clearance sites where African-Americans lived, allowing only white projects on vacant land.  The only vacant site (of a total of 39 considered) outside the city chosen for additional African-American housing was Cherry Hill, an isolated peninsula adjacent to a city landfill and incinerator. 

Also restricted to slum clearance sites were the three African-American high density high-rises built by the HABC: the Lafayette Courts, Lexington Terrace, and Murphy Homes.  These projects were constructed next to older low-rise projects thus creating a large, dense cluster of poverty and segregation around downtown Baltimore. 

In the period between 1950 and 1964, Baltimore embarked on an aggressive urban renewal program that displaced more than 25,000 people, 85% of them African-American.  In 1953, the City’s Redevelopment Commission designated eight areas of the city to be redeveloped, including urban renewal projects in Waverly and the area just west of Johns Hopkins Hospital.  In Waverly, a residential and commercial project that included 290 apartments and 270 parking spaces was designated by the Redevelopment Commission for white occupants only.  According to a 1952 study by Morgan State University, the project displaced what was formally a racially mixed community with 61% African-American and 39% Caucasian, with many of the African American residents moving to segregated projects in the city.  The East Baltimore component of the City’s 1950’s redevelopment project expanded Johns Hopkins Hospital into the block bounded by Broadway, McElderry, Monument, and Caroline with housing for Hopkins students.  

Once complete, a fence was erected around its perimeter that became symbolic of the tensions between Hopkins and the community.  The City ignored protests by the Urban League that the Waverly and Hopkins urban renewal projects essentially amounted to government-sponsored “segregation in the name of redevelopment.” 

The landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education marked the end of legal segregation yet little changed in public housing in Baltimore.  HABC replaced its official segregative policy with one of “freedom of choice,” but this was proven meaningless in 1967 when the federal government ordered it to be replaced with a more equitable “first come first served” policy.  However, a 1992 HUD report found that no changes were ever made.  Instead, HABC pursued a policy of “limited integration” that included hand-me-down housing allowing African-Americans to move into older surplus Caucasian housing, which then quickly resegregated.  

This included the Latrobe and Perkins Homes and projects in isolated industrial areas such as Westport and the Fairfield Homes. 

More recently, programs that could have broken up concentrations of poverty with scattered site housing were shot down.  Baltimore City Council fated the Section 23 Leased Housing Program by limiting its area of operation to predominantly minority urban renewal areas - the only city in the nation to do so. Similarly, HABC’s scattered site Rehabilitated Housing program concentrated nearly all of its 2800 units in inner-city minority areas adjacent to large existing public housing projects. 

Next Steps 

At time of writing, the Thompson v. HUD case is in a remedial phase, in which the court will decide what action HUD must take to ameliorate this history of segregationist policy.  According to Philip Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, the challenge for HUD will be to develop a comprehensive remedy in a case where local and state housing authorities are no longer part of the lawsuit.  One option might be to target project-based subsidies, such as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, to non-segregated “opportunity” areas, expanding voucher-based housing mobility through a regional program and using housing acquisition strategies that do not require rezoning.  With another construction crane popping up almost every day in the City, one wonders what the Baltimore “renaissance” will mean for the families who have suffered through the years.  Hopefully, a new set of policies can be set in place before it’s too late.