A federal lawsuit filed last Friday charges that Ridgeland’s bid to phase-out current apartment complexes seeks to rid the city of affordable housing occupied primarily by blacks and Hispanics.
The suit on behalf of the 260-unit Baymeadows Apartments is in response to an overhaul of the city’s zoning ordinance in February that designated five of the city’s rental complexes as non-conforming uses and nearly a dozen others as having too many units on too few acres. The five complexes face demolition depending on the classification of non-conforming use they receive from the city, while owners of other complexes may have to demolish units to meet new density regulations.
The effort to zone the apartments out of existence has caused concern that people who work in the shops, restaurants and other businesses in town won’t have housing. Ridgeland Development Director Alan Hart insists that won’t happen and said in an interview last week that the city will have plentiful housing for residents who hold jobs in the region. “The city has lots of workforce housing,” he said.
With the phase-out, zoning will allow new high-end apartments that are part of mixed-use developments, Hart said, but they won’t be “a traditional apartment-complex arrangement.”
Hart further insisted Ridgeland “is not running a program against” apartment complexes but is “simply enforcing an ordinance” and applying provisions against non-conforming uses “as adopted.”
The ordinance includes no provision for grandfathering long-held uses.
Hart went on to say the city of Ridgeland could not speak specifically to the lawsuit at this time.
The scope of the changes in land-use rules, according to the Baymeadows suit, violates the federal Fair Housing Act by pricing minorities out of the rental market and will result in “excluding African-Americans and Hispanics from living in Ridgeland.”
Exclusion is part of the city’s calculation, charge attorneys Sheldon Austin and William Drinkwater of the Jackson firm Brunini, Grantham, Grower & Hewes. In the 45-page suit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Northern Division, the attorneys claim a key city official in at least one private meeting described the removal of Baymeadows and other rental complexes as a way to exclude or decrease the number of so-called “undesirables” who reside in the city.
Kelly Simpkins, an attorney working with Ridgeland on the rezoning declined to comment on the lawsuit, noting “the city does not comment on ongoing litigation.”
Austin and Drinkwater ask for a declaratory judgment specifying that Ridgeland officials violated the due process rights of the Illinois company that owns Baymeadows, located in the southeastern part of the city at 110 Pine Knob Drive. The violation stems from the city’s refusal to let Baymeadows make repairs and renovations, including renovations designed to enhance the safety of residents.
Austin and Drinkwater say the city has put the owners in a Catch-22 by refusing to grant permits to comply with code violations discovered at Baymeadows while assessing fines for the violations.
At the heart of the suit is a claim that outlawing an apartment complex built in the early 1970s and annexed into the city in 1980 infringes on property rights granted by the Mississippi Constitution.
Enforcement of the rezoning will have a “significant and oppressive” impact on the finances of owners BBC Baymeadows LLC, the suit says.
Baymeadows, the lawyers say, will “either be subject to demolitions in less than six months” or a “vague and arbitrary” amortization schedule at the end of which the apartments will no longer be allowed to exist.
In the meantime, “the certainty” that the rezoning will force demolition of Baymeadows has deprived it “of any present economic value that would be looked at as a marketable asset,” the suit claims.
In noting that hundreds of minority tenants face the prospect of a city-forced eviction, Austin and Drinkwater claimed Ridgeland excluded mobile home parks from the sweeping new zoning rules to avoid displacing white residents. “This was intentional,” the lawyers said. “Apartments have significantly more minorities than trailer parks.”
The suit alleges the rezoning and the decision to exclude grandfathering of apartment rentals as allowed uses grew out “closed door” meetings between city officials, developers, builders and real estate agents in the spring and summer of 2009.
In their version of events, Austin and Drinkwater say the scheme started as a plan to initiate the “Southeastern Ridgeland Development Project,” a plan that they say involved replacing Baymeadows and four other apartment complexes with “cottage” style single-family houses selling in the $150,000-$200,000 range.
The redevelopment’s success rested on re-purposing “private property at a below-market-cost,” the suit alleges, putting the amount of property involved at 160 acres.
The land-purchase plan for the Southeastern Ridgeland Development Project fizzled after developers failed to come up with enough money, Austin and Drinkwater say.
The new strategy: Initiate stringent code enforcement actions that make the properties too expensive to maintain, the Brunini Grantham lawyers say.
The city “hoped the aggressive code enforcement would devalue the properties to make them affordable for favored developers to purchase or drive the apartments out of business by imposing maintenance costs that owners could not afford.”
The code crackdown failed to get the results Ridgeland wanted, the suit says.
Next came an unsuccessful attempt in early 2013 to persuade legislators to allow the City to assess a penny sales tax for redevelopment, according to the suit.
A new tactic developed in 2014, the suit says: “The City refocused on a plan to obtain the properties by reforming its zoning ordinance and rezoning the area containing the targeted apartments.”
If successful, the Brunini lawyers say, Ridgeland could get the properties “and avoid paying the owners just compensation.”