Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fair Housing Feds Score $2.5M+ In Suit Settlement Accusing Louisiana Municipality Of Engaging In Discriminatory Zoning Practices To Keep Out Black Renters In Aftermath Of Hurricane Katrina

From the U.S. Department of Justice (Washington, D.C.):

  • The Justice Department announced [] that St. Bernard Parish, La., has agreed to a settlement valued at more than $2.5 million to resolve separate lawsuits by the United States and private plaintiffs alleging that the parish sought to restrict rental housing to African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

    The United States’ lawsuit alleged, among other things, that the parish: (1) passed a law, known as the permissive use permit ordinance, that prevented homeowners from renting single-family homes in residential zones without first obtaining a permit from the parish; (2) revised its zoning code to reduce dramatically the amount of land available for multi-family apartments; and (3) interfered with individuals’ housing rights.

    The lawsuit further alleged that these actions were done to limit or deny rental housing to African-Americans in violation of the Fair Housing Act. These actions came on the heels of the parish’s other efforts after Hurricane Katrina to restrict rental housing opportunities, including halting the re-establishment or redevelopment of rental housing and enacting a permit requirement for single-family rentals but exempting renters who were “related by blood” to the homeowners.   The parish later rescinded these restrictions.

    “The Fair Housing Act is clear that local governments cannot use their zoning and land-use laws to discriminate on the basis of race,” said Eric Halperin, Senior Counsel and Special Counsel for Fair Lending in the Civil Rights Division. “People should have the freedom to choose where they live, without regard to race, and this innovative settlement will create greater housing opportunities in the New Orleans area.”
  • Under the settlement, which still must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana, the parish must pay $275,000 to eight aggrieved persons identified by the United States and $15,000 to the United States as a civil penalty, establish a new Office of Fair Housing and hire a fair housing coordinator with a gross annual salary of at least $40,000, spend $25,000 each year in a marketing and advertising campaign to attract renters and developers of multi-family rental housing to the parish, and establish a rental land grant program through which the parish will transfer lands in its possession, free of cost, to qualified persons or entities who are willing to create or rehabilitate housing for rental purposes.

    The land grant program, which requires the parish to offer lands worth up to $83,000 each year, will last for five years; other programmatic features will last for three. Parish officials must also undergo fair-housing training and provide periodic reports to the United States.

    In a separate agreement, the parish agreed to pay $1.65 million in compensation, costs and attorneys’ fees to two sets of private plaintiffs.

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