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Public housing lawsuit nears an end

In a move that could wrap up more than 17 years of legal wrangling over fair housing options in Baltimore, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the city housing department have filed a proposed settlement agreement of a class action by public housing residents.

“In general, this settlement agreement is something that everyone can be proud of,” said Andrew D. Freeman, with Brown Goldstein & Levy LLP, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. “There will be lots of moving pieces, but they came together in a way that could benefit thousands of families in the years to come.”

The proposed settlement agreement, entered late Friday, was submitted by attorneys on both sides of the case, Carmen Thompson v. HUD, in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Among the conditions is the continuation of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which voluntarily places public housing tenants throughout the city or the suburbs.

The proposed settlement agreement would replace partial consent decrees dating back to 1996.

“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,” Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said in a statement.

The housing mobility program was started in 2003 and has helped more than 1,800 families move to new areas. If approved, the settlement agreement would continue the program and fund vouchers and counseling for up to 2,600 more families, about 400 a year, over seven years.

“We’re very pleased with the settlement agreement in that it will continue the program,” said Joshua Civin, with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc. “The Baltimore Mobility Program has been quite successful, and the goal is to continue it at the same pace.”

The settlement would also include the creation of an online housing locator to locate public and affordable housing options. HUD would also provide incentives for private housing developers who seek mortgage insurance offered by the Federal Housing Administration.

Additionally, for at least three years, HUD would have to conduct civil rights reviews of certain federally funded housing and community development proposals in the Baltimore region.

“The settlement is about justice for the families involved, but more broadly it is part of the task of ensuring a level playing field for all Americans. It is about dismantling barriers to opportunity that hold back the economy and prosperity of our region,” said J. Howard Henderson, CEO of the Greater Baltimore Urban League, a member of the Baltimore Regional Housing Campaign, in a statement. “We saw firsthand that these families are working toward the same things we all want — a good place to raise their children and a better job, hopefully one with a career path.”

The lawsuit was filed in 1995 by six black tenants of public housing in Baltimore. Lawyers claimed that thousands of families were “perpetually” locked into areas of concentrated poverty in Baltimore, which maintained racial discrimination nearly 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court.

The partial consent decree in 1996 allowed the public housing high-rises to be demolished. The high-profile 2003 trial looked at the history of local and federal housing policies in the city as plaintiffs’ lawyers attempted to prove civil rights violations had taken place.

In 2005, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis cleared the city and its housing authority of liability, but ruled that HUD had violated the Fair Housing Act by not taking a regional approach to desegregation in the six years before the lawsuit was filed.

Garbis held a separate trial in 2006 to consider proposed remedies, but never issued a ruling.

The next step is for Garbis to review the proposed settlement agreement and hear any objections. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.