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After a decade of litigation, a federal judge in Baltimore has ruled that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is on the hook for violations of the Fair Housing Act by concentrating public housing in poor urban areas. The recent decision by Judge Marvin J. Garbis found that HUD had failed to consider regional desegregation and integration programs in public housing. Thompson v. HUD, No. MJG-95-309 (D. Md.) “It’s a landmark case in the order of Gautreaux,” said Professor Myron Orfield of the University of Minnesota Law School, referring to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority (N.D. Ill. 1969), one of the first to find against HUD for civil rights violations of equal protection in housing. “It means that HUD has to use its massive leverage to further affirmative fair housing,” Orfield asserted. The voluminous lawsuit was filed in 1995 by the American Civil Liberties Union and its pro bono counsel, Chicago’s Jenner & Block, on behalf of 14,000 African-American families in Baltimore public housing. The plaintiff class sued federal HUD and the Housing Authority of Baltimore (HAB) on claims of racial discrimination in housing policies. The case took nine years to get to trial, which ended in December 2003. The judge found no liability against HAB. Nor did he find intentional racial discrimination by the defendants, “with one possible exception,” directed at HUD for its failure to regionalize housing. Lead counsel Susan R. Podolsky of Jenner’s Washington office has worked on the case from its inception, sometimes putting in 14-hour days. She claims that the case is an important civil rights victory holding HUD liable for its failure to look outside poor urban areas to disperse housing or foster opportunities for families to move to better areas. “People were given vouchers and told to go find themselves a nice neighborhood,” said Podolsky. HUD is required to provide counseling to help residents and landlords understand how to use the vouchers. Residents need help finding transportation and work opportunities outside the city, which the plaintiffs said HUD has failed to provide. Podolsky said she got involved in the lawsuit after meeting some of the plaintiffs, particularly lead plaintiff Isaac Neal, who was one of the first residents working to get relief. Both Neal and his son testified during the trial about the difference in schools and the level of violence between inner-city and suburban areas. “Mr. Neal was a well-spoken man holding down a job who raised his children in several projects,” Podolsky said. “There’s just no reason for a person like him not to have better opportunity.” There were 17 similar lawsuits filed around the country against local agencies and HUD during the same period in the mid-1990s, according to plaintiffs’ co-counsel Andrew D. Freeman of Baltimore’s Brown, Goldstein & Levy, which is not working pro bono. Most of the actions have been settled by consent decrees. Thompson is the first of them to render a judge’s decision finding liability against HUD. HUD was represented by the Department of Justice. Lead lawyer Judry Subar referred calls to the communications office, which said the department was not commenting on the decision. HAB’s defense counsel, William F. Ryan of Baltimore’s Whiteford Taylor & Preston, is adamant that the city of Baltimore was vindicated by the judge’s decision finding no liability against HAB and only narrow liability against HUD. “It’s important from our perspective because we prevailed across the board,” said Ryan, adding that the judge’s decision shows Baltimore to be a city of progressive leadership in desegregation. “We had the courage to put former mayors on the stand and subject them to cross-examination because we knew we were right.” While finding no liability against Baltimore may be important to the city, Orfield asserts that it makes little difference to the ultimate remedy in this case. In Gautreaux, for example, both Chicago and HUD were found liable, said Orfield, but the remedy came through HUD working with a nonprofit group to make corrections. “It really was not significant that Chicago was named a defendant,” said Orfield. “Chicago could not really meet the mandates anyway.” Philip Tegeler, a lawyer and the executive director of Poverty Race Research Action Council, a Washington-based national civil rights policy organization, said the decision has national importance. “It really gets at the heart of the legal problem that is in the way of legal housing programs,” said Tegeler. “And that is the fragmentation of responsibility over local housing and land use decisions.” Judge Garbis has ordered a remedies stage that will begin imminently with a schedule of hearings. It is too early to determine the extent of HUD’s liability and possible remedies, say the plaintiffs’ attorneys. The judge wrote: “It remains to be seen, in further proceedings, whether HUD’s failure adequately to consider regionalization policies was motivated by an intent to discriminate based upon race, a willingness to bow to political pressure, oversight, neglect and/or other causes.”

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