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Ridgeland hit with yet another housing discrimination suit

templateBy TED CARTER

A land-use strategy to establish segregated housing and lower the number of minority students in Ridgeland’s public schools is behind the City’s effort to displace nearly 5,000 residents who live in apartment complexes, a federal lawsuit claims.

The suit filed by Watkins & Eager attorneys Robert Ireland and Paul Stephenson on behalf of the owners of Lakeshore Landing and Pear Orchard Apartments claims Ridgeland’s new zoning ordinance violates the federal Fair Housing Act. The measure ultimately will create a pattern of segregated housing in the city, the suit claims.

This marks the second housing discrimination suit to grow out of Ridgeland’s declaration that 15 apartment complexes violate a density limit of 10 units an acre included in the zoning ordinance adopted in February 2014. The zoning ordinance replaced one enacted 14 years ago.

The earlier federal suit filed by attorneys for the 260-unit Baymeadows Apartments charges the zoning ordinance seeks to rid the city of affordable housing occupied primarily by blacks and Hispanics.

The newest suit notes that although the Ridgeland Area Master Plan that served as a guide for the zoning ordinance does not address racial demographics, a statement included in the planning document emphasizes that “several areas of high density residential have been eliminated” from future land-use plans “as a response to growing concerns expressed by citizens.”

Documents generated during the City planning for the adoption of the new zoning ordinance reveal that city officials and residents believed Ridgeland public schools were facing an “image” problem related to racial demographics, according to the suit. Both Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing have a significant number of non-white residents, the suit adds.

“Although Ridgeland schools were performing well, officials and residents observed that white families were increasingly sending their children to private schools or moving to Madison and other communities north of Ridgeland to send their children to public school there. Links were drawn between the ‘image’ problem in the schools and declining apartments in southeast Ridgeland and the perception they generate social problems like high crime,” the Watkins & Eager suit says, and adds:

“Officials and residents suggested the demographics in the public school system could be addressed by eliminating apartments and, as other communities had done, by increasing the number of homes valued at $200,000 to attract young families whose influx into the city would protect the schools.”

Both the Baymeadows suit and the new suit have been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Northern Division. The Baymeadows suit claims 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.

City officials and their specially hired attorney, Kelly Simpkins, have declined to address charges included in either the federal suits or suits filed in Madison-Rankin Circuit Court on behalf of more than a dozen apartment complexes that charged the new land-use law violates property rights.

Attorneys for Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing also declined to comment.

In the ordinance, Ridgeland says applying the new density limits retroactively is aimed at ridding the city of “over-crowded slum-like conditions, urban blight and a general deterioration of residential uses.” Ridgeland also claims the apartments put a disproportionate burden on City infrastructure and services.

Attorneys for Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing counter that neither complex is slum-like and that Ridgeland approved $1 billion in building permits in the 13 years leading to adoption of the new ordinance without voicing concerns over burdens on services or infrastructure.

A third federal suit, this one filed for owners of the Northbrook rental complex, claims Ridgeland wants to force demolition of the very buildings the City used to secure $7.9 million in debt to pay for renovating the 180-unit subsidized-rent complex. The owners, CAP IV Ridgeland LLC, say the City in issuing the bonds pledged not to interfere with the bond’s collateral.

Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing are faced with eliminating 83 percent of their units, or 484 apartments of a total of 585, the suit says.

Together, owners Mid-America Apartment Communities stand to lose $30 million, according to the suit. Mid-America is a Tennessee-based real estate investment trust with 252 apartment complexes in 14 states. It acquired the Ridgeland apartments in 1994.

The zoning ordinance sets a classification system for non-conforming multi-family rental complexes. Those that receive a Class A designation can continue at their current density as non-conforming uses, though the City has so far offered only one Class A classification. It said it would give Arbors at Natchez Trace the coveted designation if the complex left two adjacent acres undeveloped. This would give the complex a density of 10.78 units an acre.

A Class B classification allows the complexes to stay in business after removing or shuttering the number of units that put them in compliance with the 10-units-an-acre limit. Classifications below Class B put the complex out of business.

Both Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing have been denied Class A status. Lakeshore has appealed to Circuit Court and Pear Orchard was expected to file an appeal on Nov. 13.

One of the newest complexes in the bunch, The Gables on County Line Road built early in the last decade, failed in a bid for Class A classification. Like the others, it is awaiting an order to shut down 50 units, displacing at least 100 residents. But also like the others, owners of the complex have sued in Circuit Court with a property rights infringement claim.

The Pear Orchard-Lakeshore suit includes a breakdown on units and tenants each apartment complex is subject to losing with enforcement of the zoning ordinance.

The 41-year-old Lakeshore Landing, 2144 Lakeshore Drive, has 196 apartments on slightly more than 10 acres. The ordinance specifies it must reduce to 101 units. At two residents a unit, 190 residents would have to move out.

Pear Orchard, a 31-year-old complex at 580 Pear Orchard Road, would lose 160 of its 389 units, displacing 320 people.

Pear Orchard is actually in more jeopardy than some of the others. The ordinance requires a conforming complex to be situated on a principal arterial Road. Pear Orchard is not on one.

The largest displacement of resident would occur with the removal of all 784 residents from the 392-unit Sunchase Apartments.

In total, the ordinance requires removal of 2,389 apartments from Ridgeland’s rental inventory. At two residents a unit, 4,778 people would have to move – or 18 percent of Ridgeland’s population.

White residents, according to the 2010 census, occupy 44.2 percent of the city’s 4,778 rental apartments, African-Americans 44.2 percent and other non-whites 7.4 percent. Of these units, Hispanics occupy 4.3 percent of them.

Whites occupy 77.1 percent of Ridgeland’s single-family housing, according to the 2010 census figures cited in the lawsuit.

The Pear Orchard and Lakeshore Landing attorneys also claim Ridgeland failed to give required legal notice of the Feb. 14, 2014 public hearing for the zoning overhaul. They further charge that the published notice described the subject of the hearing as a “zoning amendment” and not the City’s first comprehensive zoning revamp in 14 years.

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