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Residency requirement a sword that cuts both ways

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Advocates on both sides of Pittsburgh's residency issue have pointed to the experiences of other cities to bolster their positions. But for every example of a city that did away with its requirement without dire consequences, there's another where leaders wish they could impose it again.

In recent years, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Rhode Island scrapped state laws that permitted municipalities to require residency after courts in those states found some aspect of those laws were unconstitutional.

The city of Atlanta had abandoned residency by the time the Georgia Legislature acted during its 1995-96 session.

Atlanta officials acted after employees complained that housing in the booming city of 416,474 was becoming increasingly more expensive and that police did not want to live near criminals they'd arrested, said Gregory Pridgeon, deputy chief of staff to Mayor Bill Campbell.

Atlanta now requires only top department heads and elected officials to live in the city.

But Pridgeon said the city had suffered no ill effects. The city's better neighborhoods are thriving, and new housing is being built throughout the city.

"Our people can live on Mars," Pridgeon said, "so long as they get here on time and when we need them."

Although the number of white employees who live outside the city is somewhat higher, many black employees have moved out as well, he said. "It's not as if all the white employees live outside and all black live in."

Fort Worth, Texas, has had a very different experience.

The Legislature abolished residency requirements in Texas 12 years ago. Fort Worth tried to counteract that about four years ago by adopting a requirement that its 5,400 employees live where they can respond quickly to city emergencies.

But the rule is so vague that it has been difficult to enforce. As a result, 62 percent of its police and 72 percent of its firefighters live in other communities. Overall, half of Fort Worth's municipal employees are in the suburbs, some as far away as Oklahoma.

That means Fort Worth's police, fire and municipal departments contain mostly white workers and fail to mirror the primarily Hispanic neighborhoods they serve, said Richard Hodapp, Fort Worth's assistant human resources director. The city's fire department is 76 percent white, 12 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, even though whites make up 48 percent of the city's 550,000 residents.

"It's been an issue that causes a great deal of frustration," he said. "Our council would like to see more residents living in this city."

The residency issue became so heated in Boston, which previously had a rule requiring workers to live within 15 miles of the city, that candidates seized on it during the 1993 mayoral election. Urged on by a vocal Save Our City group of residents, Mayor Thomas M. Menino won office and re-election after pledging to reinstate residency for new employees by refusing to sign contracts with employee unions that did not require it.

Detroit and other Michigan cities, on the other hand, were forced by the Legislature to do away with residency last year. It's too soon to know what the overall effect on Detroit will be, but police are starting to move and Detroit officials are worried about losses of population and taxes, said Greg Bowen, a spokesman for Mayor Dennis Archer.

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