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Extreme Pretexts Used to Further|Racist Housing, La. Groups Say

NEW ORLEANS (CN) - In violation of a federal court order, St. Bernard Parish is still excluding black renters to "maintain demographics" in the white-dominated area, a fair housing group and an affordable housing developer say. The builder claims the discrimination has gone so far that the parish has fined construction workers "for having 'too much' dirt on their tires.'"

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and Provident Realty Advisors sued St. Bernard Parish, its president and council in Federal Court.

Louisiana's parishes are the equivalent of most states' counties.

The plaintiffs say St. Bernard Parish, a mostly white area of outlying New Orleans is using zoning laws to keep black people out.

To "maintain demographics," St. Bernard Parish, which lies just beyond New Orleans' predominantly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, has continuously changed its zoning laws, according to the 56-page discrimination complaint.

Provident Realty Advisors claims the parish has just 8 months left before federal housing credits expire, at which point the parish will have frustrated its attempt to build badly needed low-income multi-family housing in the area.

Before the tax credit deadline was extended to December, the parish had almost been successful at sabotaging Provident's efforts to build, the lawsuit states.

Provident and the Fair Housing Center say the racist plan began after Hurricane Katrina: "In 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish passed an ordinance that prohibited any Parish resident from renting a single-family residence to anyone other than a blood relative. The effect and purpose of the ordinance was to 'maintain demographics' by preventing African Americans from moving into the Parish. Plaintiff Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center ('GNOFHAC') sought a preliminary injunction to enjoin St. Bernard Parish from enforcing its ordinance. The Parish repealed the ordinance and agreed to a Consent Order, signed and approved by the Court, which enjoined the Parish from violating the Fair

Housing Act, and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1982, and 1983 for a period of three years, beginning on February 27, 2008," according to the new complaint.

Provident claims the parish had no objections to its plans until Provident advertised they would serve low-income families.

"Defendants' conduct is motivated by racially discriminatory intent, has a discriminatory effect on African Americans, and perpetuates segregation by the parish. Allowed to proceed unchecked, defendants' discriminatory actions will result in the loss of desperately needed affordable housing for the parish and the loss of Provident's investment and tax credits," Provident says. ""St. Bernard Parish had long been a predominately white, highly segregated community, with a dearth of multi-family housing and affordable housing."

The zoning ruse is so transparent, the plaintiffs say, that after construction began, "patrol cars from the parish Sheriff's office were regularly on the sites, and workers were fined for having 'too much' dirt on their tires.'"

There is a history of racism in the parish, the complaint states: "After Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area in August 2005, thousands of evacuees fled New Orleans. When many attempted to flee New Orleans' predominately African-American Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard officials constructed blockades to prevent neighboring residents from entering, even authorizing sheriff deputies to 'shoot to kill.'


"Despite the desperate need for housing following Hurricane Katrina in both St. Bernard Parish and the greater New Orleans metropolitan area, St. Bernard Parish moved quickly to enact several zoning ordinances that restricted the construction, rehabilitation, and rental of housing in the parish."

The complaint cites three ordinances that the parish enacted "as part of an effort to exclude African Americans who had been displaced after Hurricane Katrina from settling in St. Bernard Parish."

The most effect, and most racist law, plaintiffs claim, was "an ordinance that

barred any member of its nearly all white community from renting a single-family residence to anyone other than a blood relative." The parish passed this one in September 2006.

"The purpose and effect of this ordinance was to 'maintain demographics' by preventing African Americans from moving into the Parish," the complaint states. This is the one for which the Fair Housing Center sought a federal injunction, and which the parish agreed to withdraw, according to the complaint.

Still, "Data from the 2005-2009 American Community Survey show that African-American households in the New Orleans MSA [Metropolitan Statistical Area] are 1.87 times more likely than white households in the New Orleans MSA to occupy housing structures with three or more units," according to the complaint.

In the past five years, the parish has passed three separate ordinances "with the express purpose of prohibiting multi-family housing in St. Bernard Parish," the plaintiffs say. They say the parish issued cease and desist orders for Provident's developments on three occasions.

"The defendants are simply using any means possible to delay construction in an attempt to stop Provident's developments once and for all," the complaint states. They say the parish rezoned itself to exclude multi-family housing in much of the parish, and that even before that, the housing market in the New Orleans area was racially segregated.

According to data from the 2000 U.S. Census, 34 percent of households in the outlying area were African-American, but only 6.1 percent of households in St. Bernard Parish were African-American. By contrast, more than 60 percent of households in Orleans Parish were African-American.

In December 2010, Congress passed an extension to its tax credit deadline, extending it to complete construction by Dec. 31, 2011.

"From the moment Provident announced its intent to re-start construction in December 2010, defendants resumed their pattern of racially discriminatory conduct," the complaint states. "Since December 2010, defendants have engaged in a non-stop campaign of discriminatory obstruction, harassment, interference, and delay, all designed to stop construction of the four Provident developments."

The first hearing on the parish's violation of the Fair Housing Act, by trying to keep out Provident's housing project, came in March 2009.

"In particular, the court found that St. Bernard Parish was overwhelmingly Caucasian; that there is a large unmet need for affordable housing in the parish; that the parish's opposition to the Provident developments was racially discriminatory; and that the parish's efforts to block the developments had a racially discriminatory effect," the complaint states.

The court asked the parish to rescind its multi-family housing moratorium.

In response, the parish sought to keep out Provident's housing complex by refusing to re-subdivide Provident's property, a necessary step before building permits could be issued. After more hearings and a federal judge's ruling that Provident's construction could continue, the parish continued to stall building. under various pretexts alleging violation of parish codes, the plaintiffs say.

At a March 1, 2011 council meeting, "councilman [Wayne] Landry further stated that he would vote in favor of pulling Provident's building permits. Referring to the parish's opportunity to stop Provident's developments, councilman Landry declared that although he feared the 'horse [has] left the barn,' the parish should do everything is its power to 'try and lasso that horse and bring it back,'" according to the complaint.

Now "the parish has taken the position that the building permits it issued to Provident are invalid, [and] the parish refuses to conduct inspections at Provident's work sites. The parish claims that it cannot do the inspections because valid permits are not in place. The failure to conduct inspections - which are routine and a normal part of the construction process- runs a serious risk of delaying and jeopardizing Provident's ability to complete construction by December 31, 2011."

The parish also refused to authorize the electric company to provide power to Provident's construction sites.

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina affected literally every structure in St. Bernard Parish. Half the houses and business were squashed or washed off their foundations. Most of the parish stood in water from 5 to 12 feet deep for days.

St. Bernard Parish, home to several oil refineries, have the shortest life expectancy of any county in the United States: 69.1 years.

The plaintiffs say the parish is violating the Fair Housing Act, and is in contempt of court. It seeks sanctions for contempt, a permanent injunction, and costs.

Named defendants are St. Bernard Parish, Parish President Craig Taffaro, the St. Bernard Parish Council, and council members Wayne Landry and Ray Lauga.

The complaint was filed by Morgan Williams, of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

According to paragraph 111 of the complaint, as Provident tried to build its apartments in February this year, "patrol cars from the Parish Sheriff's office were regularly on the sites, and workers were fined for having 'too much' dirt on their tires."

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