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The Van Mark Apartments in Ridgeland.

HUD deal will force Ridgeland to reverse course on affordable housing

By TED CARTER

Ridgeland’s strategy to significantly cut the number of multi-family rental units has backfired to now require city officials to promote more of the housing they sought to eliminate.

An agreement that lets Ridgeland avoid Fair Housing Act violation penalties from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development gives the City 180 days to give HUD an Affordable and Fair Housing Marketing Plan. The plan must include standard language to encourage development of mixed-income communities.

The settlement also mandates that the City make “tangible” steps to reach out to and engage residents of Southeastern Ridgeland’s rental complexes in planning for mixed-income housing.

HUD says it will monitor Ridgeland for the next four years to ensure it complies with the agreement.

The settlement follows Ridgeland’s year-and-a-half effort to force 15 rental complexes to either shut down or reduce the units they offer for rent. The City used its new zoning ordinance, adopted in February 2014, to mandate new multi-family density limits to be applied retroactively. The ordinance, the first zoning overhaul in 14 years, specified a limit of 10 multi-family units an acre.

Ridgeland’s capitulation to HUD specifies the City won’t apply the limits to existing complexes but can enforce them for future multi-family rental complexes.

Mayor Gene McGee and other city officials cited public health and safety in enacting the ordinance, but were open about their desire to replace apartment complexes in southeastern Ridgeland with villa-style single family housing, shops and restaurants.

The agreement leaves the apartments in southeastern Ridgeland as non-conforming grandfathered uses.

In a prepared statement last week, McGee said Ridgeland remains committed to a goal of ensuring and improving the “health, safety and welfare of its citizens.”

HUD said in a news release last week that under the settlement, “multifamily properties are treated as they were prior to the ordinance when it comes to use and density.”

Had HUD not gained the concessions it sought from Ridgeland, it could have asked the Justice Department to sue over Fair Housing Act violations. The housing agency charged the City sought to reduce the population of blacks and Hispanics in the city in violation of federal laws.

One Jackson lawyer involved in the multiple lawsuits over the ordinance called the mandate to encourage mixed-income housing the HUD settlement’s “hidden bomb.”

For instance, if the Board of Aldermen refuses to grant a variance for a mixed-income housing development, HUD may come down and remind the mayor and aldermen they have an affirmative obligation to factor-in affordable housing in their residential housing decisions, said the lawyer who spoke anonymously.

That same reaction could come from HUD if the mayor and aldermen are presented a plan for high-end housing as part of a Planned Unit Development, or PUD, the lawyer said.

“HUD comes in and says, ‘I know you have a plan for this beautiful PUD, but you have an obligation to factor-in affordable and mixed-income housing,’” the lawyer said.

The settlement’s mixed-income provision has “lots of teeth,” the lawyer said.

Michael Cory Jr., a Jackson lawyer who represented more than a half dozen Ridgeland rental complexes, said he thinks the mixed-income provision could force Ridgeland to consider federal tax-credit housing. “I know there is interest in that,” he said of a proposal for tax-credit housing.

John Jopling, managing attorney for the Mississippi Center for Justice’s Biloxi office, sued Ridgeland in federal court on behalf of residents of the southeastern Ridgeland apartment complexes. The mixed-income provision is significant, he said in an email.

“The City’s leadership needs to treat this HUD conciliation as an opportunity for a course correction” Jopling said.

In filing the suit in February, Jopling charged Ridgeland enacted the 2014 Zoning Ordinance to displace a substantial portion of Ridgeland’s minority population.

An analysis by Jackson law firm Watkins & Eager concluded that Ridgeland’s retroactively applied restrictions on multi-family housing would have displaced 5,000 residents.

Meanwhile, Ridgeland should expect a lot of scrutiny from both HUD and housing advocacy organizations in the years ahead, according to Jopling. “Any attempt by the City’s leadership to restrict economic or racial diversity in Ridgeland is just going to create problems,” he said.

In addition to encouraging more mixed-income housing, Ridgeland’s elected officials and certain staff members of the City’s Community Development Department must attend training related to the agreement and the federal Fair Housing Act in the coming weeks. Sign-in sheets will be required and the sessions must be video-taped, a move one lawyer said will give HUD an opportunity to ensure city officials are actually engaged in the sessions and not using their cell phones and other hand-held devices during the training.

The City also must either hire or appoint a Fair Housing Act compliance officer in the next 45 days.

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