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The Van Mark Apartments in Ridgeland.

Lawyers for or apartment complexes, residents not ready to back off suits

» Lingering questions after HUD’s Ridgeland settlement could keep litigation alive
By TED CARTER

Ridgeland’s Fair Housing Act settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development does not end private litigation that arose in the past 18 months over the City’s effort to displace thousands of residents from multi-family rental complexes.

A lawyer for several Ridgeland rental complexes says he must know more about the City’s intentions before ending suits challenging provisions of a February 2014 zoning ordinance that sought to shut down some complexes and reduce the number of apartments in others.

Lawyers have also voiced concern about whether Ridgeland will compensate apartment complex owners for money they lost through the City’s actions, including an inability to refinance the complexes and an inability to borrow money to upgrade the units as a prelude to charging higher rents.

Ridgeland has agreed to back off the density limits that threatened the futures of 15 complexes around the city, including several in southeastern Ridgeland, a section city officials had hoped to turn into an enclave of villa-style homes with nearby shops and restaurants.

But Jackson lawyer Michael Cory Jr., who represents Sunchase, Northbrook, Pinebrook and The Mark of Ridgeland, said he is unsure Ridgeland is prepared to treat the apartments he represents in the same manner as apartments elsewhere in the city. A major issue, he said, is Ridgeland classifying the apartments as a permitted use under a non-conforming zoning designation.

Such a classification, he said, leaves the complexes vulnerable to new threats from City Hall. “What I think the apartment owners want is the right to use their property as an apartment complex as long as they take care of them just like any other property owners,” Cory said.

“If they can assure us of this, I think that would satisfy most of their concerns.”

Mayor Gene McGee said in a prepared statement last week that the City will move forward “with its goal of improving the health, safety and welfare of all of its citizens.” Ridgeland cited health, safety and welfare as reasons for enacting the multi-family rental restrictions in the first place.

Further, McGee emphasized the apartments in southeastern Ridgeland will remain as non-conforming uses, a designation handed apartments in that section of the city in the 2014 zoning ordinance. The complexes previously had R-6 multi-family zoning, according to Cory.

Under a non-conforming classification, the apartments will have grandfather status. But that status can be jerked away at any time, said Cory, whose clients own complexes in Southeastern Ridgeland.

Further signaling Ridgeland’s faith in the legal soundness of the 2014 zoning ordinance, McGee’s statement noted that state courts had upheld the restrictions in five rulings. However, those rulings addressed only the legality of a classification system Ridgeland had established for “amortizing” the apartments, not the legality of the density limits and other provisions of the 2014 zoning ordinance, Cory and other lawyers say.

The amortization was to detail how and when apartment units were to be removed from the market, though city officials never announced an amortization schedule under the various classifications..

“Those rulings were certainly narrow,” Cory said. “They didn’t cover all the issues. There were various challenges yet to be addressed and no challenges that were final.”

Cory said without restoration of the R-6 zoning, his clients may want to continue their litigation. “They don’t want to have less rights than before they started” the litigation, he said, though he stressed in an interview last Friday he had not had not yet fully discussed options with his clients.

“What they are proposing to do is make you a ‘permitted use’…. Permitted uses can be revoked,” he said.

The apartment owners have had losses that go beyond attorney fees, according to Cory. “There were complexes that wanted to try to improve their properties and charge higher rents,” Cory said. But the threats from the zoning ordinance prevented the owners from doing so, he added.

“There are allegations in the existing filings that are before the court,” Cory said. “If they chose to pursue those, there is a good chance they would be successful.”

Overall, said Cory, HUD obtained a surprising level of concessions from Ridgeland in the final settlement, “They got some broad relief that was very helpful to my clients,” he said.

John Jopling, managing attorney in the Mississippi Center for Justice’s Biloxi office, said he expected HUD to gain significant concessions from Ridgeland through its threat of a lawsuit claiming Fair Housing Act violations. Jopling noted a suit he filed in February on behalf of African American tenants of three of the complexes in southeastern Ridgeland raised the same claims of racial discrimination as those HUD made in its complaint.

“The Center for Justice is very pleased that the HUD conciliation means that our clients can remain in their homes and that over 1,500 units of affordable rental housing have been preserved,” he said in an email Monday. “While we are encouraged by the conciliation agreement, we must meet with our clients and confer with our co-counsel at Venable LLP in order to assess its impact upon the tenants’ lawsuit.”

Added Jopling: A violation of the Fair Housing Act is a very serious matter so I am not surprised by the numerous concessions that HUD obtained from the City.

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

About Ted Carter

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