Federal housing agency charged City sought to displace minority residents
By TED CARTER
In a move that lets Ridgeland avoid Fair Housing Act violation penalties from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials have agreed to scrap provisions of a 2014 zoning ordinance that could have forced more than a dozen rental apartment complexes out of business.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, said in a statement Tuesday morning that the City has agreed to amend the zoning ordinance “so that multifamily properties are treated as they were prior to the ordinance when it comes to use and density.”
The 2014 zoning ordinance marked the first revamp of Ridgeland zoning since 1999.
It is unclear what the agreement means for the more than one dozen federal and state lawsuits challenging the zoning law that retroactively applied new multi-family building densities. Owners of the apartments sued after learning the ordinance would force them to either close up a large percentage of their units or shut down altogether.
Ridgeland officials had until Tuesday refused to discuss any aspects of the controversial land-use policy, though Mayor Gene McGee had said in a 2015 interview the City would have to raise taxes or cut steeply into other parts of the budget to cover costs related to the suits.
McGee in a written statement Tuesday afternoon said “health, safety and welfare” concerns and not an intent to discriminate led the City to enact the far-reaching zoning provisions.
“Resolution with HUD allows the City to continue to move forward with its goal of improving the health, safety and welfare of all of its citizens,” he said.
The building density limits will be applied to future multi-family projects but the City will replace the “nonconforming” status for the existing rental complexes with a “grandfathered” designation, according to the mayor.
Jackson lawyer Lawton Hester, who has filed a federal fair housing discrimination suit against Ridgeland on behalf of Bay Meadows Apartments, said in a February 2015 interview he expected the HUD actions to bring a resolution to those legal actions.
Before the lawsuits, city officials said health and public safety issues involving the apartments put an unjustified burden on the city’s budget. Also propelling the plan was a desire by city officials to redevelop Southeast Ridgeland into an enclave of bungalow-style housing with new shops and restaurants.
The multi-family rental complexes in that part of Ridgeland are predominantly occupied by African-Americans, according to HUD.
HUD said 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.”
Another provision of the settlement between HUD and Ridgeland specifies that the City must notify “property managers and/or owners of multifamily properties in advance of any public hearings contemplating changes to existing zoning, land use, and occupancy policies; and process all zoning, land use, building and occupancy approvals and permits in good faith and in a timely manner.”
Ridgeland also agreed to submit to HUD a proposed Affordable and Fair Housing Marketing Plan which encourages “the development of mixed-income communities and provides tangible steps for conducting outreach and engaging the residents of Southeastern Ridgeland in the community planning process.”
HUD charged in a December 2015 administrative complaint that Ridgeland officials are engaging in “unlawful discrimination based on race.”
HUD’s complaint noted the City received nearly $5 million in federal money in 2014.
One Jackson attorney involved in challenging the zoning law said at the time HUD could freeze Community Development Block Grants or initiate a civil lawsuit through the Department of Justice.
HUD gained significant enforcement latitude in June 2015 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.”
HUD’s nearly 1-year-old complaint said 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.
In defending the City’s multi-family housing policy in a September 2014 interview, Ridgeland Development Director Alan Hart 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.
The largest displacement under the ordinance targeted by HUD would have occurred with the demolition of Sunchase Apartments and removal of all 784 residents from the 392-unit complex at 875 William Blvd.
HUD’s December 2015 complaint reinforced its discrimination claims with a statement 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.
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