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Housing discrimination by town officials still a problem

December 8th, 2013 by Joseph William Singer

A number of recent cases has revealed the persistence of racial discrimination affecting municipal decisions about housing. The Sixth Circuit found, for example, in Hidden Village, LLC v. City of Lakewood, Ohio, 734 F.3d 519 (6th Cir. 2013), that town officials may have engaged in a campaign of harassment designed to induce African American residents to move out of town. The case involved a Lutheran religious organization that helped young people released from foster care or juvenile detention to enter society. The organization found a helpful landlord willing to rent apartments to the organization’s clients. At first the town officials argued that this amounted to an institutional use in violation of the zoning law but the town planning commission found otherwise. At that point, the complaint alleges that town officials began a campaign of police harassment that involved citations for minor offenses and unreasonable searches of apartments.

The Sixth Circuit concluded that the landlord had standing to sue to claim violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. §§1981-1982 and the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §3601 et seq. The court also held that plaintiffs had presented a viable substantive due process claim. The court noted that the due process clause “protects landlords against irrational restrictions on how they use their property. Rationality may be a low bar. But the government flunks even that test when it tries to prevent a landlord of any race from renting to tenants based on their race.

The court also found a potential violation of §3617 of the Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. §3617 which makes it illegal “to coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of, or on account of his having exercised or enjoyed, or on account of his having aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of any right granted or protected [by the Fair Housing Act].” Although federal courts have been confused on the issue, the Sixth Circuit held that a §3617 violation could be shown even if there was no underlying violation of another section of the Fair Housing Act. In this case, for example, no one denied the youths housing or granted them discriminatory terms. Nonetheless, the facts sufficiently alleged that the town sought to interfere with their enjoyment of the right to obtain housing without regard to race.

In a second case, the Eastern District of New York held that a city violated the Fair Housing Act when it rezoned several parcels to prevent the building of low- and middle-income housing. The court found that the facts supported a finding of liability under both a discriminatory treatment and disparate impact theory. MHANY Mgmt Inc. v. Incorporated Village of Garden City, 2013 WL 6334107 (E.D.N.Y. 2013). read article The court found a discriminatory treatment claim (intentional racial discrimination) because there was sufficient evidence  to conclude that animus because of race was a significant factor in the denial of the housing opportunity. Evidence to that effect was shown by the fact that exclusion of low-income housing would impose a greater impact on African Americans than on whites, there was a history of racial bias in the city, and the sequence of events leading up to the denial of the housing opportunity that suggested a racially discriminatory motive. Although the city gave legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for the change in the zoning law, the plaintiffs undermined those justifications by showing that the proposed development would not significantly affect traffic and that other reasons given by the city were not supported by the available evidence. The court thus found that the proffered justifications were pretextual.

The court also found a disparate impact claim. Although the city gave legitimate nondiscriminatory reasons for its decision (reducing traffic and providing for townhouse construction), it did not show that these goals could not be achieved in a less discriminatory manner or in a manner that did not perpetuate racial segregation.

Posted in Antidiscrimination law, Consumer protection, Due process, Fair Housing Act, Leaseholds, Real estate transactions | Comments Off on Housing discrimination by town officials still a problem

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