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In the Media: Baltimore Exempt from Section 8 Program; County Schools May Close for Muslim Holidays

Vacant properties on a block where the Vacants to Value program was working during 2015.
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A digest of Baltimore news from local sources.

From the Baltimore Sun: In surprise, Baltimore exempt from controversial Section 8 program to increase mobility

"The Baltimore region would be exempt from a federal housing voucher reform designed to help low-income families move out of high-poverty areas.

"The plan is meant to allow holders of housing choice vouchers — commonly known as Section 8 vouchers — to receive higher rental reimbursements if they use them for housing in low-poverty ZIP codes, while reducing payments in high-poverty areas.

"The controversial proposal comes amid concerns that earlier federal policies perpetuated economic divisions or prompted landlords to inflate rents even as research showed the powerful benefits conveyed to children who grow up in stable, safe neighborhoods.

"Issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the draft rule would set federal rental subsidies by ZIP code in 31 metro areas, including New York, Washington and Philadelphia, replacing the broader metro-wide approach used now.

"'It's clear that our current approach to supporting more options isn't working in many areas,' said Katherine M. O'Regan, HUD's assistant secretary for policy development and research. 'What we propose … will offer real choice to voucher-assisted families.'

"Baltimore is exempt because a voucher holder in the region is only 44 percent more likely to live in a low-income area than a general renter — less than a 55 percent threshhold established by HUD.

"But the formula makes places without much difference between voucher holders and other renters appear to have less of a problem — even if both groups likely live in high-poverty zones and would benefit from assistance.

"'It may be because Baltimore renters are so, so poor and live in such disadvantaged areas that there is less of a difference,' said Eva Rosen, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's Poverty & Inequality Research Lab who has studied the voucher program in Baltimore and other cities.

"Rosen, who cautioned that she had not seen HUD's data, praised the reform and said it was 'problematic' that it's not coming to Baltimore, where about a third of renters earn less than $25,000 a year, according to census data.

"But the HUD proposal has met some resistance since it was first outlined last year.

"Some suburban Baltimore politicians said they were concerned about its effect on county neighborhoods, while landlords and Baltimore housing officials said they feared it could lead to fewer vouchers being distributed and reimbursement cuts that would deter investment in the city's low-income neighborhoods.

"Baltimore Housing Commissioner Paul Graziano said he remains concerned that the program will restrict choices for poor families without leading them to better neighborhoods."

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From the Baltimore Sun: Baltimore County schools to consider closing on Muslim holidays

"After more than a decade of advocacy by the Muslim community, the Baltimore County school board appears poised to vote on whether to designate two Muslim holy days as school holidays.

"A school board subcommittee is recommending the move, which has also been considered by other school systems around the state. The full board is expected to vote next month on the proposed policy that would close schools for up to two days a year.

"If the policy passes, the school system would be the first in Maryland to close on the two most important Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, when they fall on school days.

"The vote will come after a 12-year effort by Dr. Bash Pharoan, a Muslim physician whose children attended county schools. He has spoken at nearly every meeting, requesting parity with Christian and Jewish students who get some of their religious holidays off.

"The school board firmly denied his request just two years ago and said there were not enough Muslim students to warrant it. That sentiment seemed to shift this week when the school board's policy review committee chairwoman, Romaine Williams, said her committee will be recommending the full board take action in July.

"Two other Maryland school systems have been inching toward recognition of Muslim holidays. In the past year, Montgomery and Howard counties decided to move their professional development days for teachers to Eid al-Adha, the Muslim holiday that changes every year based on the lunar calendar.

"Baltimore County's school board took a similar step in the past year and designated the holiday as a teacher training day. Baltimore County public school students will have Eid al-Adha off on Sept. 12 as result. New York City has also recently begun closing schools for the Muslim holy days.

"Muslim parents who have advocated for the school closures over the years have argued they were in the untenable position of having to choose between allowing their children to observe important religious and cultural holidays and having them keep up with their classes."

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From the Baltimore Sun: Freddie Gray case: Baltimore police investigators, prosecutors clash in court

"Tensions between police and prosecutors erupted in a downtown courtroom Thursday, with a top prosecutor accusing a lead detective of trying to sabotage the state's case against six Baltimore officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray.

"Chief Deputy State's Attorney Michael Schatzow also suggested that top police officials tried to persuade the doctor who performed Gray's autopsy to rule his death an accident rather than a homicide.

"Detective Dawnyell Taylor, lead detective in the police investigation of Gray's death, denied the claims and in turn suggested that Deputy State's Attorney Janice Bledsoe lacked integrity and was dismissive of evidence in the case.

"The clashes came during an explosive sixth day of testimony in the second-degree murder trial of Officer Caesar Goodson Jr., the driver of the van in which Gray suffered fatal spinal injuries last year.

"The day began with Circuit Judge Barry G. Williams denying a defense motion to dismiss the charges following the conclusion of the prosecution's case Wednesday, but only after expressing "concern" about the merits of the murder charge. The day ended with testimony from Donta Allen, the second arrestee placed in the van with Gray, who sparred with defense attorneys over what he'd heard during that trip.

"Still, the exchange between Schatzow and Taylor was the day's focal point, highlighting questions about Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Carol Allan's decision-making process. And it further exposed a rift between police and prosecutors that began almost immediately after Gray's death last April, when State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby announced that she would launch an independent investigation into how Gray died.

"Historically, police have investigated use-of-force allegations and forwarded results to prosecutors, who could investigate further and decide if criminal charges should be filed. Instead, in the Gray case, police and prosecutors worked on parallel tracks."

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