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HUD charges Ridgeland targeted removal of minorities with zoning law

The goal has been to transform southeast Ridgeland by getting rid of apartments predominantly occupied by African-Americans, HUD says

By TED CARTER

Ridgeland officials are engaging in “unlawful discrimination based on race,” the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleges in an administrative complaint that addresses Ridgeland’s campaign to dramatically reduce multi-family rental units in the city.

HUD made no specific warning that consequences of enforcing a 2014 zoning law could include a cut off of Ridgeland’s federal funding. However, its notice to Ridgeland noted the City received nearly $5 million in federal money in 2014.

The HUD notice says the agency has 100 days to make final conclusions on whether violations of the 1968 Civil Rights Act and the 1988 Fair Housing Act have occurred. “This is an ongoing investigation and HUD is intent upon moving swiftly to conclusion,” HUD says.

One Jackson attorney involved in challenging the zoning law said HUD could freeze Community Development Block Grants, initiate a civil lawsuit through the Department of Justice, or seek to gain a consent decree to ease the stringent land-use and building density rules in the 2014 zoning ordinance, the first revamp of Ridgeland zoning since 1999.

HUD gained significant enforcement latitude in June with a major U.S. Supreme court ruling in a Texas case that said the agency did not have to prove “intent” to prevail in Fair Housing Act cases. HUD, the court said, can use statistics to show that the challenged practice had produced a “disparate impact.”

Ridgeland’s Board of Aldermen and planning officials have insisted the 2014 zoning ordinance outlawing current apartment complex unit densities is rooted in a desire to enhance land-use standards. The measure further seeks to free taxpayers from a disproportionate burden multi-family rental units put on infrastructure and services, city officials say.

HUD thinks otherwise, and says city officials have been open that a desire to change the city’s demographics drove implementation of the new stringent zoning rules.

One outcome sought through a demographic shift, according to HUD, was reduction in the number of minority students in Ridgeland schools.

Accordingly, HUD says, the goal for nearly a decade has been to transform southeast Ridgeland into an enclave of single-family homes by getting rid of the apartments predominantly occupied by African-Americans and making up the bulk of that part of the city’s housing stock.

Ridgeland officials “simultaneously marketed southeast Ridgeland for redevelopment to developers and other real estate professionals and explored a variety of strategies, some publicly, some behind closed doors,” HUD says in a Dec. 1 notice titled “Housing Discrimination Complaint.”

The federal agency said the secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiated the complaint under provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee declined comment Monday as did Development Director Alan Hart. Both cited Ridgeland’s policy of not discussing matters that are in litigation.

Hart said in a September 2014 interview that the phase-out of the apartment complexes will allow new high-end apartments that are part of mixed-use developments. The new multi-family properties won’t be “a traditional apartment-complex arrangement,” he said.

Ridgeland is merely applying provisions against non-conforming uses “as adopted,” Hart added.

Ridgeland has been hit with more than dozen lawsuits by lawyers representing 15 rental complexes. The majority of the suits are in Madison-Rankin Circuit Court and charge the 2014 zoning law and its density caps violate property rights protected in both the state and federal constitutions.

Three of the legal complaints have been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi. They allege violations of the Fair Housing Act and claim the housing policies seek removal of blacks and Hispanics.

The most recent suit, filed on behalf of Lakeshore Landing and Pear Orchard Apartments, claimed 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 about 4,770 residents who live in apartment complexes around the city.

The largest displacement would occur with the demolition of Sunchase Apartments and removal of all 784 residents from the 392-unit complex at 875 William Blvd.

A federal Fair Housing suit filed for the owners of Baymeadows Apartments 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.

HUD reinforces the discrimination claims with a statement in its notice that the agency “has strong evidence that Ridgeland took and continues to take these zoning actions because of the racial identity of the apartment buildings’ inhabitants for the express purpose of driving these minority residents out of the city.”

Other multifamily housing located in the majority white areas of Ridgeland has not been similarly treated under the 2014 zoning ordinance, HUD says.

Moreover, the policies and practices of Ridgeland “have harmed and threaten imminent harm to African American residents in disproportionate numbers without sufficient justification. The harm from these exclusionary practices is both imminent and ongoing, as is the threat of condemnation.”

The threat of condemnation stems from a classification system the zoning ordinance gives apartment complexes. The City set up an appeal process for the properties to follow in seeking a classification that allow the complexes to remain either intact or partially intact. Each appeal has been rejected, though city officials have not set a timetable for the complexes to either board up or demolish enough units to comply with the ordinance.

HUD, meanwhile, has asked attorneys involved in the federal suits to provide data and other information to help the agency find whether civil rights violations have occurred. “This office has already obtained considerable material from the City of Ridgeland and others,” HUD said in its letter to the lawyers.

Michael Cory, one of the attorneys contacted by HUD, said he thinks the federal agency has made some “threshold determinations” that have led it to decide it must investigate further.

HUD officials have clearly indicated they “are taking this matter seriously,” Cory said.

HUD would not answer questions about the administrative complaint. “We cannot comment further at this time as this is an open complaint,” said HUD spokeswoman Elena Gaona in Washington, D.C.

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