Segregated by Design: “Free Choice” and Baltimore Public Housing

By Sara Patenaude

On the morning of August 20, 1995 a crowd gathered in the streets of downtown Baltimore. Thirty thousand people formed an eight-block-long parade and party, complete with band performances and vendors selling commemorative t-shirts and souvenirs. At noon, a hush fell over the crowd, after which the countdown began. As the chant hit zero, a series of explosions could be heard, and felt. In just twenty seconds, the six high-rise towers of the Lafayette Courts housing projects crumbled into dust and rubble.[1]

This moment, decades in the making, bookended the rise and fall of public housing in Baltimore. Planners initially envisioned Lafayette Courts as one of Le Corbusier’s “towers in a park,” meant to replace overcrowded slums with clean, comfortable, affordable provisions for the city’s working poor. Built in the mid-1950s as Baltimore’s first high-rise public housing, Lafayette was also the first of Baltimore’s public housing to open as a desegregated project.[2] The first residents in the project “were begging to get into this place,” former resident and custodian Joe Lamma remembered.[3] By 1995, however, the towers were plagued by constant maintenance issues, crime, and categorical disinvestment by the city and the citizenry of Baltimore.

The rise and fall of public housing is a popular topic for urban historians. The story has been told for cities from Chicago to Los Angeles, New York to San Francisco. While the story in Baltimore may not, at first glance, seem unique, the city has become known for its public housing and related issues of poverty, drugs, corruption, and crime since the critically-acclaimed HBO series, The Wire, debuted in 2002. More recently, the tragic death of Freddie Gray and the resulting uprising in the city’s streets have brought Baltimore’s housing problems back to the public mainstream. Though its official motto is “The Greatest City in America,” Baltimore, Maryland is more likely to be colloquially referred to by the pejorative, “Bulletmore.”

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Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Yet the projects have been home to thousands of Baltimore residents since 1940, when Poe Homes (named for one of the city’s most famous residents, Edgar Allen Poe) opened in West Baltimore. Poe Homes, and the twelve housing projects that followed, were divided into “Negro” and “White” projects. After 1954, when the Housing Authority of Baltimore City (HABC) officially desegregated the projects in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, applicants to public housing were legally allowed to apply for residence in whichever projects they preferred, regardless of race.[4]

When it came to implementing these desegregation policies, however, the reality was not so simple. By ignoring the legacy of segregation and ongoing systemic racism, the focus on removing official barriers to “choice” did little to actually alleviate segregation among public housing residents. Even as federal officials mandated a new policy aimed at ending continued segregation, allowing local control provided Baltimore officials and residents ample opportunity to maintain several all-white projects—primarily in the interest of maintaining any white residents on their public housing rolls. In Baltimore, as elsewhere across the country, residential segregation was enforced not by government decree, but by individuals abandoning “block-busted” neighborhoods for the suburbs, pressuring elected officials to stop “encroachment,” and loudly proclaiming racially coded complaints about declining property values.[5]

Baltimore was one of the first cities in the nation to desegregate its public housing system in 1954, but the method with which they did so made little progress towards integration of the housing projects. Using a “freedom of choice” policy, officials in public housing removed the direct barriers which prevented black residents from applying for tenancy in white housing projects. This focus on free choice emphasized individual action, refusing to acknowledge systemic or community issues that could prevent black applicants from feeling safe moving into formerly all-white spaces. At the same time, it allowed elected officials and policy makers to act with decisive and swift action in a way that elided responsibility for healing any of these underlying problems.

After declaring the housing projects “desegregated,” officials had to grapple with the reverberating effects of post-war racial divides. Lower-class white people, afforded opportunity through FHA home loan programs and GI Bill benefits, moved in droves to the suburbs. In Baltimore, the city was soon left as a majority-black city surrounded by a majority-white county; with Baltimore’s unique municipal organization, the two were entirely separate political bodies. In Baltimore, public housing applicants submitted their applications to individual projects rather than being assigned by the central housing authority, a feature which officials insisted supported individual choice. Under the new desegregated application system, even those projects that did briefly meet the threshold of “integrated” quickly changed over to all-black occupancy.[6] More than a decade after the city’s “freedom of choice” plan was implemented, public housing remained effectively segregated; although the overwhelming majority of public housing residents in the city were black, three housing projects maintained all-white occupancy.[7] When HUD demanded affirmative steps to desegregate these three projects, local officials again turned to the rhetoric of “choice” to explain resistance by both white and black residents. Rather than racial animus on the part of officials, they insisted, allowing the continuance of these all-white projects was out of a desire to keep any white residents of public housing at all. Moreover, the reliance of public housing on tenant rents to pay for maintenance and operation costs made it necessary for the housing authority to capture as much rent as possible. The economics of race, then and now, meant that poor whites as a group were still better off economically than poor blacks.

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Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

In the late 1960s, HUD revised their tenant selection policies and sought to phase out “freedom of choice” housing programs like Baltimore’s, with some limited success.[8] At the same time, HUD began efforts to deconcentrate public housing from low-income minority neighborhoods and experimented with new forms of public housing construction, forming the precursors to modern housing voucher programs. In Baltimore, officials struggled with decisions over how to deconcentrate public housing in a city that was rapidly losing white and middle-class residents. While the city’s public housing civil servants generally accepted HUD’s site selection guidelines and put forward requests to build housing in non-minority neighborhoods, elected officials refused permissions necessary to build new public housing outside of areas that were already majority black.[9] By 1970, the combination of white flight from the city, an ever-larger majority of black residents in public housing, and these site selection decisions created a situation in which integration of Baltimore’s public housing projects had become essentially impossible.

The continued disinvestment by local and federal officials created a perfect storm of underfunding, deferred maintenance, and underserved communities that changed public housing from programs of uplift to drug-addled areas of crime where residents succeeded despite, not because of, public housing programs. In 1995, the City of Baltimore received funds under HUD’s HOPE VI plan to finance demolition of the city’s public housing high-rises. Lafayette Courts was just the first of Baltimore’s public housing high-rises to come down. Less than a year later, 15,000 onlookers gathered for another “festive atmosphere” to see the five towers of Lexington Terrace fall.[10] Murphy Homes, with its four 14-story high rise towers and its grim moniker “Murder Homes,” followed in 1999.[11] Baltimore’s demolitions in the late twentieth century were part of a wider trend as public housing authorities across the country, supported by federal HOPE VI funds, divested from their large-scale public housing developments. As Baltimore Housing Authority spokesman Zack Germroth explained, “It made no sense to repair them from a sociological, physical or maintenance standpoint.”[12] Some units were replaced with new public housing in mixed-income projects, while others were converted into Section 8 Housing Choice vouchers. The last of Baltimore’s low-income high-rises came down with the 2001 demolition of Flag House Courts.[13]

The policy rhetoric of “freedom of choice” continued even as the high-rise housing projects came down. As with the original slum clearance efforts that gave rise to large-scale public housing, proponents of HUD’s HOPE VI plan often touted its benefits as giving low-income residents more choices about where to live––thus the moniker, “Housing Choice Vouchers.” Despite releasing residents from the problems of pre-built public housing projects, the shift to voucher programs has been unable to further meaningful choice because of its reliance on a private housing market that still operates within a society replete with systemic racism. Even as the housing projects have come down, the decisions made by public housing officials can be seen in the segregated residential patterns in Baltimore that remain today.

PatenaudeHeadshot.jpgSara Patenaude has a PhD in History from Georgia State University. Her scholarly work investigates the intersections of race, public policy, and city planning in the twentieth century United States. She currently works as a real estate and economic development consultant in Atlanta.

Featured image (at top): Mural, Baltimore, Maryland, Carol M. Highsmith, September 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

[1] JoAnna Daemmrich, “Lafayette Courts Ends in 20 Seconds of Explosions, Cheers, Tears,” Baltimore Sun, August 20, 1995; Charles Cohen, “Destroying a Housing Project, to Save it,” New York Times, August 21, 1995.

[2] Lafayette opened in 1956 as a desegregated project, a significant change by city officials following the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board declared “separate but equal” to be inherently unconstitutional.

[3] Cohen, “Destroying a Housing Project, to Save it”.

[4] The decision to desegregate was not an altruistic one. Housing authority officials worried that a delay in action would lead to federal intervention in a way that the city officials could not control. By forging and implementing their own policy ahead of any court orders, the commissioners hoped the housing authority might be subject to less scrutiny and oversight of their progress. Report on Racial Occupancy Policies of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City by Staff Committee, June 24, 1954, Baltimore City Archives; Oliver C. Winston, Speech entitled Desegregation Policy: An Address to All Employees of the Housing Authority of Baltimore City, June 30, 1954.

[5] For more on blockbusting in Baltimore, see Edward Orser, Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1994) and Antero Pietila, Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010).

[6] Despite all new housing projects after 1955 opening on a “desegregated” basis, all eight of these new projects were overwhelmingly black-occupied by 1970. Expert report of Karl Taeuber for the plaintiffs, Thompson v. HUD, ACLU collection, University of Baltimore Special Collections.

[7] Brooklyn Homes, Claremont Homes, and O’Donnell Heights were opened as all-white projects under the segregated public housing system. These same three projects remained overwhelmingly white-occupied into the 1980s. Eileen Canzian, “Baltimore Finds Integrating Public Housing an Elusive Goal”, Baltimore Sun, July 2, 1985.

[8] Assistant Secretary for Housing Management, Assistant Secretary for Equal Opportunity, HUD, Tenant Selection in the Public Housing Program, 1971 directives. When Baltimore’s program was questioned by HUD, local officials embarked on new efforts to encourage black tenants to move into white projects. The inverse was never attempted.

[9] Despite HUD guidance stating that new projects should be established outside of areas of minority concentration, Baltimore officials refused to allow innovative programs such as Section 23 Leased Housing to be implemented outside of designated “urban renewal areas,” all of which were in low-income, majority-black neighborhoods. Resolution No. 4 (Council No. 1349), Baltimore Ordinances 1965-66, 1045.

[10] “Baltimore to Demolish More Public Housing Units,” The Washington Post, September 30, 1995.

[11] Dylan Waugh and Megan Miller, “Murphy Homes Gone, Not Forgotten,” Capital News Service Maryland, December 19, 2008.

[12] Sharon Cohen, “Demolition of Dangerous, Decaying Public Housing Begins,” LA Times, May 26, 1996.

[13] Jewish Museum of Maryland, “Flag House Courts and Albemarle Square,” Explore Baltimore Heritage, accessed June 3, 2018, https://explore.baltimoreheritage.org/items/show/374.

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