Monday, July 12, 2010


In an ongoing effort to balance July 5th's post by calling attention to the things that Baltimore is doing (or has done) to make a more open city, I present a link to this amazing 1953 Encyclopedia Britannica film about The Baltimore Plan.

In the four years after 1949's Slum Clearance legislation but before 1953's Urban Renewal legislation, a radical idea was proposed: what if, instead of completely clearing slums and reverting the city to a tabula rasa, we held slumlords to task in the interest of actually maintaining slum buildings? In Baltimore, the tool that was proposed to achieve this was the HOUSING COURT. The Encyclopedia Britannica film is essentially a film about this housing court.

As the movie suggests, Housing Courts were started in the 1950s as dedicated arenas for legal issues of housing, which were often of a scale too small to be effectively heard in the broader jurisdiction of the circuit and the district court. As an organ of the mid-century urban renewal movement, these early courts often focused their attention on deadbeat landlords that were not complying with health and safety codes. Ideally, these courts contain themselves to the nuanced and often mundane issues that erupt between tenants and landlords. Despite its original moral center around tenants' rights, the decisions levied by the court helped pave the way for aggressive modernizations that, at the very least, disturbed old patterns settlement, and at the worst, eliminated opportunities for fair housing in city centers.

The creation of a housing court in 1947 by a crusading judge in Baltimore, Maryland paved the way for the Pilot Program, a large scale urban improvement project in East Baltimore. James Rouse, a groundbreaking real estate developer and civic activist, was the head of the Mayor's Advisory Council on Housing Law Enforcement and an early advocate of slum clearance. These institutions, along with other advocates like Yates Cook of the Housing Bureau, used the authority vested by the Housing Court to identify unhygienic, unsafe, and untenable housing within the Pilot Program's twenty seven blocks. The massive renewal program paved the way for big-time developers like Rouse to build new housing and infrastructure.

Today, most medium to large communities have Housing Courts exclusively to handle the issues that arise between tenants and landlords, and few, if any, operate with the mandate that Rouse gave Baltimore's in the early 50s. Their jurisdiction ranges from questions about zoning changes to nuisance problems that might affect neighbors within a neighborhood. This forum gives tenants without substantial legal or monetary means to fight unfair treatment by housing authorities. For example, New York City's Housing Court, which relies upon 50 full-time judges and 1000s of support staff, hears around 300,000 cases a year.

Housing Court is in the Arsenal of Inclusion because it gives under-served populations access to due jurisprudence. It keeps areas of communities, often characterized by older housing stock and heterogeneous populations, viable places of healthy living. At the same time, any institution that falls victim to labyrinthine bureaucracy or external influence can lose sight of its ultimate mission. As the East Baltimore program demonstrated, the Housing Court's rulings are played out in the city by a long list of actors with many competing motives.

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