By TED CARTER
The Mississippi Center for Justice, a public interest law organization, has added a 38-page lawsuit to a stack of suits against the City of Ridgeland over a 2014 zoning ordinance that targets multi-family rental complexes.
Joined by multi-state private law firm Venable LLP, the Center filed suit Friday in federal court in Jackson alleging that Ridgeland violated the Fair Housing Act by attempting to eliminate, through rezoning, five apartment complexes that are occupied by predominantly African-American and Latino residents. These complexes include Baymeadows Apartments, where the individuals named as plaintiffs in the suit reside.
The suit alleges the City aimed to reduce its minority population by targeting Southeast Ridgeland apartment complexes for destruction and redevelopment. It’s a claim included in a late 2015 complaint from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD.
HUD and the Center for Justice say a desire to remove black and Hispanic residents drove city officials and the Board of Aldermen to enact the sweeping new zoning ordinance that set retroactive building density limits on the apartment complexes, many of which are decades old.
The result has been “unlawful discrimination based on race,” HUD said in an early December notice to city officials in which the agency said would conclude a further investigation within 100 days.
The Center’s housing discrimination suit charges the action against the apartment complexes grew out of a long-held belief among city leaders that “changing demographics” were hurting schools and driving white residents out, depressing property values.
Census data shows that Ridgeland’s white population dwindled from 76.3 percent in 2000 to 57.5 percent in 2010. Limiting affordable housing options “was seen as the best way to curb the influx of what was referred to as ‘Jackson’s rot,’” the Center suit claims.
HUD and the Center say the worries over demographics brought creation of the 2008 Ridgeland Area Master Plan, a strategy that called for replacing apartments predominantly occupied by African-Americans and other minorities with clusters of single-family cottage-style housing.
Ridgeland’s mayor and other city officials have declined to address either the 2014 rezoning, the growing number of lawsuits or the HUD complaint. The City’s specially hired lawyers have also declined to comment.
Before the lawsuits, however, city officials said health and public safety problems involving the apartments put an unjustified burden on the City’s budget.
However, if the apartments threatened public health and safety, the City has not tried to prove it, according to the Center for Justice suit.
The suit accuses the City of rushing through the passage of the new zoning law without adhering to its own procedures for rezoning, without performing any studies or analyses that justified rezoning and, breaking from past practice, without exempting the existing use of the affected properties from the law’s restrictions.
The Southeast Ridgeland complexes are the only properties targeted for demolition under the new zoning ordinance. Complexes in other parts of the city could be forced to close up or demolish some of their units.
John Jopling, a managing attorney at the Center for Justice, said Ridgeland is clear in its goals. “The 2014 Zoning Ordinance was intended to displace, and will have the effect of displacing, a substantial portion of Ridgeland’s minority population,” Jopling said in a press statement accompanying the lawsuit. “This is a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act.”
Many residents worry they will be forced to move and take children out of local schools, Jopling said in an interview Friday, and added some residents are even worried they will have nowhere to go.
The suit seeks to have the rezoning provisions of the 2014 zoning law declared invalid and to prohibit the City from enforcing them.
Ridgeland’s rezoning ordinance and the insistence on apartments meeting new unit density rules have led to a dozen lawsuits in state and federal courts on behalf of 15 rental complexes.