HUD’s racism charge could nudge Ridgeland into settling housing bias issues

February 4, 2016
Mississippi Business Journal

Ridgeland officials, as well as their outside legal counsel, have been silent on the series of state and federal lawsuits their zoning mandates have brought.

Before the lawsuits, however, city officials said health and public safety issues involving the apartments put an unjustified burden on the city’s budget.

They also have declined public comment on HUD’s housing discrimination complaint detailing what the agency says is a long-held goal of Ridgeland to transform southeast Ridgeland into an enclave of single-family homes by getting rid of the apartments predominantly occupied by African-Americans and making up the bulk of that part of the city’s housing stock.

It is significant that HUD is making the same claims made in a trio of pending federal Fair Housing Act lawsuits against Ridgeland, Sullivan said.

And should HUD move against Ridgeland, its task has been made much easier by a summer 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found in a Texas case that federal fair housing investigators need not show a governmental entity intended to discriminate. It need only show the entity’s action resulted in a “disparate impact” against protected minorities.

“If they can show this has a disparate impact on Americans, the city is in trouble,” Sullivan said of the federal suits.

The Ridgeland litigation “is not the first kind of case like it, but it may set some precedent if it goes into litigation,” he said.

He added he has a fairly good sense of how the legal fight will end. “I think the city will lose,” he said.

Citing public health and safety won’t be enough to prevail, he said. “They’d have to show there is some sort of danger out there.”

In the face of defeat, Sullivan said, city officials most likely would agree to a mediation to which HUD and lawyers for the apartment complexes will be parties.

John Jopling, housing law director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, shares Sullivan’s expectation for mediation. “HUD is going to lean on them for some type of mediation,” Jopling said of Ridgeland.

“HUD has a history of favoring mediated outcomes.”

He said he nonetheless is monitoring developments on Ridgeland housing policies on behalf of its apartment residents. “Nobody is representing the tenants,” Jopling said. “They have an independent cause of action if they want to pursue it. We are looking at that mindfully.”

Jackson lawyer Lawton Hester, who has filed a federal fair housing discrimination suit against Ridgeland on behalf of Bay Meadows Apartments, said he thinks mediation or some sort of government reconciliation “is very possible.”

Hester said he does not think the dozen zoning-related lawsuits against HUD will be stalled by the HUD action. It is more likely, he said, that the HUD actions will bring a resolution to those actions.

The federal agency has already begun running a 100-day clock on its investigation and can be expected to put the whole matter on a fast track, said Hester, a member of Wyatt Tarrant & Combs who practices a mix of public entity and civil litigation.

“It will move much faster than the private litigation,” he predicted.

Hester suspects HUD’s mention in its complaint that Ridgeland had received around $5 million in federal money in 2014 was “a shot across the bow” and served to remind city officials federal grants could be at risk, as well as the city’s general fund should financial penalties be assessed.

HUD’s legal firepower, which includes the full force of the Department of Justice, is a lot for a small Mississippi city to go up against, Hester noted. “The government has an awful lot of power to investigate and litigate these things.”

Hester’s involvement began in 2012, a period in which Ridgeland was using code enforcement to try to shut down apartment complexes and had not yet settled on zoning as a strategy.

Even after his long involvement, Hester said he is astonished that the issue has reached such a tipping point and led HUD to make “institutional racism” central to its complaint. “I have been in litigation 30 years and have never seen anything like it,” he said. “I still continue to be amazed.”