Filed Under:  Civil Rights, Housing, Local, News, Regional

Settlement reached in St. Bernard housing case

20th May 2013   ·   0 Comments

By April Siese
Contributing Writer

After lengthy legal battles, a settlement has finally been reached in a discriminatory housing controversy that has halted development in St. Bernard Parish. On Friday, May 10, St. Bernard Parish and the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to a settlement that called for sweeping reforms as well as compensation to multiple parties, including individuals and advocacy group the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The Justice Department initially filed a lawsuit against St. Bernard Parish in January 2012, just over a year after the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development filed a fair housing complaint.

HUD alleged that the parish implemented discriminatory zoning ordinances to restrict housing options to people based on race, using their recovery efforts as a front to retain pre-Katrina demographics. St. Bernard Parish was one of the areas most severely affected by the storm. Demographic data for St. Bernard Parish shows that African-Americans accounted for only ten percent of the population pre-Katrina.

A subsequent investigation and list of complaints from eight parish homeowners prompted the Justice Department to conduct their own investigation and ultimately file a lawsuit against St. Bernard Parish. The Justice Department’s lawsuit affirmed HUD’s allegations of discriminatory ordinances as well as claims of interference with individuals’ housing rights, all of which put them in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Valued at over $2.5 million, the settlement requires St. Bernard Parish to compensate eight individuals with $275,000 each. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, along with nine individual property owners and their attorneys will be compensated a total of $900,000 as well. Though a previous lawsuit had been settled between GNOFHAC concerning rental restrictions, the housing center says that St. Bernard Parish repeatedly violated that agreement which was filed against a parish policy that restricted the renting of single-family homes to property owner’s blood relatives.

Homeowner Carolyn Harris was one of the plaintiffs involved in the case and has been dealing with permit issues since 2009. Harris is hopeful that the settlement will bring about economic growth in the parish. “With this resolution, I hope it helps other people as well… We need the right people in the right places. I’ve been living in St. Bernard Parish since 2000 and I think it was a little bit better before the storm. We have no supermarkets.”

St. Bernard Parish is also required to pay a civil penalty of $15,000 as well as establish a new Office of Fair Housing. Continual reforms are an important part of the settlement, which includes hiring a fair housing coordinator with a salary of at least $40,000 and spending $25,000 a year in marketing and advertising to attract renters and developers. St. Bernard Parish must also establish a rental land grant program in which they can transfer parish-owned land free of charge to qualified persons willing to establish housing in said land for rental purposes. The land grant program is set to last for five years and offer lands worth up to $83,000.

Officials are also required to undergo fair-housing training, periodically reporting their progress to the government in an effort to maintain accountability. Previous accountability efforts came at the hands of a legal battle that has stretched on for well over half a decade, ultimately culminating in five contempt rulings, one of which fined the parish $50,000 a day until it issued occupancy permits to four Provide Realty Advisors apartments in 2011. Such rulings and contempt of court allegations have cost taxpayers millions of dollars.

St. Bernard Parish was first found in violation of the Fair Housing Act in 2008, when a previous ruling was overturned through efforts from GNOFHAC and other advocacy groups. Though the settlement is awaiting approval from a federal judge, its detailed plan has many hopeful for the future of housing in St. Bernard Parish.

GNOFHAC executive director James Perry told The Louisiana Weekly that “after eight years of fighting, we are pleased and hopeful that the Parish has finally taken the reasonable step of ending protracted litigation and opening up opportunities for people to live in St. Bernard regardless of race. We will remain vigilant in ensuring that the Parish complies with the fair housing obligations it has explicitly agreed to.”

This article originally published in the May 20, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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