For the second time in less than two years, a major civil rights challenge under the Fair Housing Act will be dismissed shortly before scheduled arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Mount Holly Township in New Jersey and residents of Mount Holly Gardens on Wednesday night agreed to resolve a decade of litigation over the redevelopment of the Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood. The settlement was unanimously approved at a meeting of the Mount Holly Township council.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments on Dec. 4 in Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, which asks whether so-called disparate impact claims can be brought under the Fair Housing Act. Because of the settlement agreement, lawyers for the parties said they will file a joint agreement to dismiss the petition filed with the justices and a joint stipulation of dismissal with the federal district court to end all pending litigation.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in 2011 that the citizens group had presented a prima facie case of disparate impact discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) because the township sought to redevelop a blighted housing development that was disproportionately occupied by low and moderate income minorities. The court also found the redevelopment sought to replace the blighted housing with new market rate housing which was unaffordable to the current residents within the blighted area.
The township petitioned the Supreme Court and argued that housing law's plain language did not include disparate impact claims and that those claims are not necessary to further the law's purposes. However, 11 federal appeals courts and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have recognized disparate claims under the FHA.
The citizens group claimed that through the aggressive use of eminent domain and demolition, the township had displaced hundreds of predominantly African American and Hispanic residents and "devastated a once stable minority community in need of only modest improvement." Roughly 70 homes out of 300 remain scattered throughout the neighborhood and not one new home has been constructed after 10 years.
The settlement includes: The construction of 44 new homes will begin with the first ready for occupancy before the end of 2014. Twenty of the 44 homes will go to current residents in exchange for allowing redevelopment of their existing homes. All of the phased new construction will be completed by 2018. Seven households that have elected to relocate will be compensated based in part on the appraised value of their homes.
Lawyers for the parties applauded the settlement Wednesday night. Township attorney George Saponaro said, "Our goal was to ensure that Mount Holly Gardens would remain a viable community, not just a redevelopment parcel. Mount Holly has taken a stand for what is right and just in the way its people respect and treat one another. It may be a small town of less than 10,000, but it has a big heart and is determined to become the new model in community revitalization with this redevelopment effort."
The citizens group and the 50 residents who brought the original lawsuit were represented by lead counsel Olga Pomar of South Jersey Legal Services and co-counsel Susan Ann Silverstein and Mariam Morshedi of AARP Foundation Litigation.
"We are delighted with the outcome because it ensures that the older residents will be able to remain in their community as they age in safe and well-designed homes," said Silverstein in a statement. "Residents of all ages have worked together for the long haul to obtain this tremendous settlement and to uphold fair housing and equal opportunity for everybody in Mount Holly."
The justices in 2011 had granted review to answer the disparate impact question in Magner v. Gallagher. The case, brought by city officials in St. Paul, Minn., was withdrawn and then dismissed just weeks before scheduled arguments in February 2012.