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Allegheny County housing seeks release from discrimination settlement

Housing Authority claims it met Sanders provisions

Thursday, January 17, 2002

By Mike Bucsko, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After more than seven years living under the restrictions of the controversial Sanders housing discrimination settlement, the Allegheny County Housing Authority says enough is enough.

The Housing Authority yesterday weighed in at U.S. District Court with more than 10 pounds of documents in support of its argument to be released from court supervision in the 1994 settlement of the Sanders lawsuit.

Complete with thousands of facts and figures, the Housing Authority contends in the voluminous filing that it has complied and, in some cases, surpassed all its requirements under the Sanders case.

"We've done what we were supposed to do," said Raymond N. Baum, the Housing Authority attorney in the Sanders case. "All the vestiges of de jure segregation that were part of the [Sanders] consent decree are gone."

As proof, the Housing Authority cites the $40 million spent over the past seven years on improvements to public housing in the seven Sanders communities, including measures such as increased police patrols to make the communities safer. The agency also lists new day care and educational opportunities in the communities, funded by private and public agencies, as further proof.

The attorney who represents the plaintiffs in the Sanders case disagrees with the county's position, however, and said there are plenty of outstanding requirements for the Housing Authority to perform.

"It's not time well spent," attorney Donald Driscoll said in reference to the Housing Authority's stack of documents. "Their time and our time is much more well spent seeing to the implementation of this [settlement] than even reading these documents."

The Sanders case takes its name from Cheryl Sanders, one of six residents of the former Talbot Towers public housing complex who filed the housing discrimination lawsuit in 1988.

Sanders and the others contended they were victims of a decades-long system of discriminatory housing practices in which poor black residents were steered to particular communities.

As a result, the communities -- Braddock, Clairton, Duquesne, Homestead, McKees Rocks, Rankin and Wilkinsburg -- and the lives of the public housing residents declined, the plaintiffs charged.

The lawsuit was later certified as a class action case to include all blacks and people of mixed racial heritage who are residents or on waiting lists for public or subsidized housing.

Provisions in the lawsuit settlement were supposed to be completed in seven years after it was approved by Senior U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond in December 1994, but that did not occur and many measures were extended beyond the expiration date last month.

In addition to the Housing Authority, also named as defendants were the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Allegheny County and the county Redevelopment Authority.

In its petition filed yesterday, the Housing Authority lists modernization and revitalization improvements in public housing developments in some of the Sanders communities as evidence of its effort to improve the housing stock.

In addition, the agency is overseeing the construction or purchase of 130 new public housing units -- mostly to comply with a section of the settlement that required replacement of some of the units lost when Talbot Towers and McKees Rocks Terrace were demolished. Part of McKees Rocks Terrace is being rebuilt.

Driscoll said many of the replacement units remain unfinished or have not yet been purchased, years after they were supposed to be completed.

He also said the Housing Authority has failed to establish a subsidized housing program that would permit residents to buy homes, despite the fact that HUD approved the project in October 2000.

The Housing Authority acknowledges in its court filing that the county's public housing is more segregated today than it was seven years ago when the Sanders settlement was approved. But the agency blames provisions in the settlement that have created roadblocks to desegregation.

The two main culprits are the requirement that the waiting lists for public and subsidized housing be combined and the establishment of a separate agency, the Fair Housing Services Center, to move people into public and subsidized housing as part of a desegregation effort, Baum said.

The Housing Authority has long had a contentious relationship with the operation of the Fair Housing Services Center, which has been run under contract by the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh Inc., since its establishment.

"The Fair Housing Services Center is incompetent, it's always been incompetent and nothing's going to change," Baum said.

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