'White' suburbs -- Will US force open the door?

This Cleveland suburb is the target of a sweeping federal court order aimed at ending what the judge has determined to be deliberate housing segregation. The court action is being appealed and ultimately could reach the US Supreme Court for what might be a landmark housing discrimination decision.

The Parma ruling is similar to the kind issued in scores of school desegregation cases across the United States. Next step in the eight-year-old case is the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to review it within the next several weeks.

It all started in 1973 when the US Department of Justice sued this largely white suburb just south of Cleveland. Parma was accused of a series of actions designed to keep blacks from renting or buying property and amounting to a violation of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act.

US District Judge Frank Battisti last June ruled that the city of Parma, through a series of intentionally passed laws and consistent opposition to low-income housing, had practiced "deliberate racial exclusion." In a follow-up ruling last December the judge, arguing that the "magnitude of the wrong" required a broader-than-usual remedy, directed the city to begin building low-income subsidized housing units at the rate of 133 year. He also ordered Parma to establish an education program for its officials, set up a fair housing committee, and begin advertising itself as an open community in black newspapers.

To oversee the process for the court and report any delays in compliance, Judge Battisti appointed a "special master," a step he had used in court desegregation efforts involving Cleveland's public schools.

The judge's order effectively wiped out city voters' rights, won in the last few years, to approve any changes in Parma's 35-foot limit on building height and to give consent before any public housing projects are built. They are at the nub of Parma's determined fight-to-the-end in this case. While the case is not singular, most similar cases to date have been settled out of court.

"The real issue is what we fought the revolution about," insists Robert Soltis, Parma's special counsel on the case. "The federal government has limited delegated powers and should stay out of local affairs. It has no right to deprive local people of their right to vote on local issues. The racial issue is just a cover for whether there's going to be local control or federal control."

Parma and its supporters say that the traditional opposition to high-rise developments and public housing in this community has an economic rather than a racial basis.

"Most people who have moved to this blue-and-white collar suburb have worked hard to get the down payments for their homes," explains Rep. Ronald Mottl (D) of Ohio, who is a resident of Parma. "They have huge mortgages to pay, and they don't want people coming in to enjoy the same rights without the same obligations. They're indignant about being forced to take public housing when they don't want it."

The Parma congressman has talked with both Attorney General William French Smith and President Reagan about the case. He claims that in the course of a phone conversation last month with Mr. Reagan on budget matters, the President agreed with him that local communities have the right to decide their own housing and zoning patterns.

According to the 1980 census, 364 of Parma's 92,548 residents are black. While the city's original stock is largely German-American, a number of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe moved here from Cleveland after World War II. The impression as one drives around this city on a quiet Sunday afternoon is not of a posh suburb but of modest single-family homes mixed with scattered apartment buildings of three stories or less. A number of residents are out mowing their lawns or tending their flowerbeds.

The fact that there are many other largely white suburbs without public housing near major cities is one reason civil rights advocates are watching its progress so closely. The Department of Justice has similar suits pending against such cities as Glastonbury, Conn., Yonkers, N.Y., and Birmingham, Mich. Though the DOJ publicly will make no value judgments on Parma's importance --"All the cases we bring are significant," insists Justice Department attorney Joel Selig -- some less directly involved are more outspoken.

"The Parma decision really represents the opening up of the suburbs," says Avery Friedman, a lawyer whose Cleveland firm has handled some 200 fair-housing cases over the last eight years and who is involved in the Parma case as a friend of the court. "This case differs from earlier ones in that the judge took the time to interrelate all segments of society, even taking into account the image of discrimination. And it is a precedent setter in terms of the reach of the remedy."

Parma hopes that in the appeals process, not only the remedy but the city's liability as a violator of the Fair Housing Act will be reversed.

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