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Thompson v. HUD

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Economic Justice | Housing Discrimination

One of the most important fair housing lawsuits currently pending in the federal courts seeks to eradicate the legacy of racially segregated public housing in Baltimore, Maryland, the hometown of Thurgood Marshall, LDF’s first Director-Counsel.  Baltimore’s public housing has suffered from nearly a century of segregation that has left thousands of low-income African-American families perpetually locked in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. By 1995, when Thompson was filed, housing experts considered Baltimore to be one of the most racially segregated cities in America.

In January 2005, after nearly ten years of litigation, Federal District Court Judge Marvin J. Garbis gave public housing residents a precedent-setting civil rights victory.  Judge Garbis held that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) violated the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by unfairly concentrating African-American public housing residents in the most impoverished, segregated areas of Baltimore City.  He found that HUD’s programs “failed to achieve significant desegregation” in the Baltimore region.  Judge Garbis further faulted HUD for treating Baltimore City as “an island reservation for use as a container for all of the poor of a contiguous region.”  Judge Garbis ruled that HUD must take affirmative steps to implement an effective regional strategy for promoting fair housing opportunities for African-American public housing residents throughout the Baltimore region. 

After issuing his January 2005 order, Judge Garbis directed further proceedings to determine whether HUD’s conduct also violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws and to decide on an appropriate remedy for the plaintiff class of approximately 14,000 African-American families who are tenants, former tenants, and prospective tenants of Baltimore City public housing developments.  The parties went to trial in the spring of 2006, and post-trial proceedings were completed that summer. 

At the 2006 trial, HUD’s own witnesses confirmed that the Baltimore region’s public housing is, and always has been, racially segregated and has never offered low-income African-Americans any meaningful opportunity to live in integrated areas of the Baltimore region.  Far from fulfilling HUD’s constitutional obligations to disestablish the vestiges of past intentional segregation and its statutory obligation to affirmatively further fair housing, “not a penny” of the billions of dollars spent by HUD in the Baltimore region has gone to help African-American public housing residents move to integrated neighborhoods. 

LDF's proposed remedy would require HUD to remedy the harm caused by its discriminatory policies.  It focuses on reversing history by creating a new and better future for public housing families who have been the victims of HUD’s discriminatory housing policies.  Testifying in support of LDF’s proposed remedy were leading housing policy experts including Jill Khadduri, Xavier Briggs and Margery Turner, Camille Zubrinsky Charles, john powell, and Gerald Webster

One part of LDF’s proposed remedy is to give Baltimore’s low-income African-American residents the same choices as to where to live as everyone else in the metropolitan region.  This will allow families to move to “communities of opportunity if they choose to, in a manner that will have minimal impact on those communities. This approach is modeled on an extremely successful pilot project, which resulted from a 1996 partial consent decree in Thompson after several high-rise projects in Baltimore City were demolished. (See New Homes, New Neighborhoods, New Schools: A Progress Report on the Baltimore Housing Mobility).

But the case is not just about moving Baltimore City families to communities of opportunity.  That is only one part of the remedy.  LDF’s proposal broadly focuses on changing how HUD makes decisions that affect the Baltimore region, and getting HUD to take responsibility for its historical discrimination.  LDF proposes that HUD must incorporate fair housing considerations into all aspects of its decision-making and require a region-wide fair housing planning process that coordinates housing, transportation, and other federally funded services that affect urban and metropolitan development.  (See expert reports from Jill Khadduri and Margery Turner/Xavier Briggs for more information).

Many of the individuals who would be helped by LDF's proposed remedy are already working at entry-level and service-sector jobs in the high-opportunity communities that are critical to the regional economy.  The remedy will simply give these families the HUD assistance they need to enable them to live close to their jobs.  Churches and civic organizations throughout the suburbs support LDF’s proposed remedy, and have pledged to help Baltimore City families make a smooth transition.

To his credit, current HUD Secretary Donovan has urged HUD to “get away from our mentality of purely enforcing existing fair housing laws to affirmatively encouraging integrated development that will create a geography of opportunity for all Americans.”  (Speech at the Urban Land Institute, April 2009). This is precisely what LDF and the Thompson plaintiffs have been advocating in this litigation.  Thompson therefore has the potential to provide a national model for the sort of regional equity initiatives that the current administration wants to accomplish nationwide.

Thompson is but one of the numerous lawsuits that LDF has litigated to enforce the Fair Housing Act of 1968, including challenges to racially discriminatory practices by realty agencies, discriminatory site selection for public housing and tenant assignment policies, and the failure of federally-funded housing programs to avoid concentrating African-Americans and the poor in urban centers or traditionally black residential areas.

LDF’s co-counsel in Thompson include the ACLU of Maryland, which filed the original lawsuit in 1995, as well as Morgan Lewis & Bockius LLP, Brown Goldstein & Levy LLP, and Levy Ratner LLP.