La. Parish to Pay $2.5M to Resolve Post-Katrina Housing Discrimination Cases
The Justice Department and HUD recently 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 claiming that the parish sought to deny rental housing to African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The government’s complaint alleged that the parish took a number of actions to limit or deny rental housing to African Americans in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Among other things, the parish allegedly:
· 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;
· Revised its zoning code to reduce dramatically the amount of land available for multifamily apartments; and
· Interfered with individuals’ housing rights.
Allegedly, 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 The parish later rescinded these restrictions.
Under the settlement, which still must be approved by a federal court, 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 multifamily 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.
“The Fair Housing Act is clear that local governments cannot use their zoning and land-use laws to discriminate on the basis of race,” Eric Halperin, Senior Counsel and Special Counsel for Fair Lending in the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “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.”
“No community has the right to keep people from living in that community because of their race,” said John Trasviña, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. “HUD and the Justice Department are committed to taking action against municipalities that violate the Fair Housing Act by instituting discriminatory zoning and other housing practices.”
Source: HUD, U.S. Department of Justice
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