A very classy gesture: To kick off its month-long celebration of “Fair Housing Month,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) invited four women who have benefited from a recently settled class action housing desegregation case against HUD to share their experiences before a large audience in the HUD auditorium, sharing the spotlight with Secretary Shaun Donovan and other high-ranking HUD officials.
The settlement, in a long-running Baltimore case called Thompson v. HUD, has empowered many public housing tenants from high-poverty neighborhoods to relocate to “opportunity” neighborhoods in the city or suburbs.
In the Thompson case, filed in the 1990s, Federal Judge Marvin J. Garbis agreed that thousands of African American families had been locked into areas of concentrated poverty in Baltimore. When the Obama administration arrived, settlement talks began, and the case was finally settled late last year. The settlement recognizes the importance of assisting low-income families who seek to move to thriving communities and away from the violence and disadvantage often found in concentrated poverty neighborhoods.
We are often the first to point out that HUD has fallen short in its mandate to promote racial integration in its housing programs, but we also recognize when HUD does the right thing. I attended the Fair Housing Month celebration last month and was moved by the stories we heard.
Many of the HUD staff around me were also visibly moved by the tangible changes experienced by these four women and their children.
Here are excerpts of three of the stories that were told at the HUD celebration:
Nicole Smith moved from a segregated neighborhood in Baltimore to Howard County, a wealthy, diverse community outside the city. She had lived in lived three different public housing projects as a child — Cherry Hill, Murphy Homes and Westport. She and her mother later purchased a house in a struggling neighborhood, but even though they both had full-time jobs, they lost the house in a foreclosure.
“My name finally came to the top of the public housing waiting list in 2007,” Smith said. “I knew what to expect in public housing: drugs, violence, crime and poor housing. The Thompson voucher, on the other hand, would give me an opportunity to move to neighborhoods that I would not otherwise have access to… it provided a way out for my 11-year-old son and me.”
She said counselling helped her credit improve and she was able to find a home in Columbia, Maryland. “I truly feel like a part of the community,” Smith said. “After moving through the program, I was able to get a job working for Howard County schools in their Before and After Care program and was just promoted to assistant director. I also enrolled in Howard County Community College and I am studying early childhood education. I hope to be able to go on to receive a bachelor’s degree in order to become an elementary school teacher.”
She said the move to Columbia made this possible.
“In the city, I did not want my son to play outside, he didn’t have many friends and he struggled in school,” Smith said. “Here, he is doing very well in school and our neighbors are welcoming — often picking him up after school while I’m working and arranging play dates and carpools. On his birthday, for the first time in his life, I was able to give him a birthday party at a local park. So many kids and parents came from the neighborhood and from his school to show their support for him. It was very moving to see how many friends he had of all different colors and cultures. The feeling of love and support from a diverse community is what fair housing is all about. I hope all people will be able to experience it one day.”
Sabrina Oliver now lives in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. She said the Thompson v. HUD settlement dramatically changed her life, and the lives of her two children. “For me, fair housing is about the hope of a better future,” she said.
Before receiving a voucher that allowed her to move, Oliver’s 9-year-old daughter suffered from a severe form of asthma that prevented her from doing most types of physical activity. When they lived in Edmondson Village in West Baltimore, her daughter was hospitalized as doctors tried to get her asthma under control. Oliver acknowledged that she also had struggles with debilitating depression and received disability benefits.
“I wanted to get out because of the killings,” she said. “I wanted a better life for my children and myself. I signed up for the (mobility) program as soon as I learned about it, and what struck me was how well I was treated. The counselors were wonderful and helpful and I knew that they were available to answer questions if I had any. The process was pretty straightforward; I went to the workshops, saved for the security deposit, and set out to start a new life. I first moved to Parkville in Baltimore County, then to Orchard Beach in Anne Arundel County.”
She said that during the three years in Parkville, her daughter’s health steadily improved and she hasn’t had any symptoms since the left Edmondson Village. She said her son, 16, had always struggled in school. “When we lived in Edmondson Village, I tried everything, but nothing helped,” she said. “The schools were failing him. I chose Anne Arundel County because I heard that they have excellent schools. Now, my son is doing wonderfully and just made the honor roll for the first time in his life.”
She said that her depression “feels like it’s gone” and she is no longer on disability.
“My new environment has motivated me to want something better for my kids and myself,” Oliver said. “I was able to find work as a patient home care technician and I’ve gone back to school, at Anne Arundel Community College, to become a drug and alcohol counselor. I chose this profession because I think that it is important to give back to communities that are less fortunate. This is what motivated me to join the board of the Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership, the organization that is responsible for the Thompson voucher mobility program.
“My hope is that other families will have the same opportunities that I have been given to reach for a better life. I would like to say thank you to Secretary Donovan and everyone at HUD who worked to make the Thompson program possible.”
Michelle Green lives in Baltimore County. She said the Thompson settlement “may have saved my sons’ lives.” She has four boys. She lived with her oldest son in public housing in Lexington Terrace and many of her family members lived in the same neighborhood.
“My sister and I often worried about our sons,” she said. “We understood how difficult it is for decent boys who are trying to do the right thing to avoid violence in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, our fears were realized in the worst way when my nephew was killed while walking home from our local convenience store. The robbers thought that he had money. He never got to finish high school; he never had a chance. I wanted to give my son a chance to live and a chance to graduate from high school, which was very rare in my neighborhood.”
Green said the voucher she received from the case gave her family a chance. She said it gave her the opportunity to move to a neighborhood that was safe.
“As soon as I got my voucher, I moved to a wonderful neighborhood in Columbia,” she said. “My boys received a warm welcome and felt really safe there. Thankfully, my two oldest sons attended middle school and high school in Columbia [MD]. They were both very active in school sports, and the coaches, the teachers and the students loved them. The day that my oldest son graduated from high school was the proudest moment of my life. He is doing well and is getting licensed to be a forklift operator.”
Green said her second son also graduated from high school and is planning to apply to colleges.
“They have made it past the most difficult age and are productive members of society,” she said. “And they are safe. Recently, I moved from Columbia to Baltimore County to be closer to the city to care for my grandmother. But I would never move back to Lexington Terrace. My two youngest sons are doing well in our new neighborhood in Catonsville. They get good grades, participate in sports, and are both determined to go to college. The neighbors love them, and they even earn extra money by mowing the neighbors’ lawns. I don’t worry about my kids’ safety anymore. I am less stressed and am able to go to work and even went back to school. I support the Thompson settlement because I believe that it can save lives.”
Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Policy & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights policy organization based in Washington, D.C.