Records Face Exposure in New Jersey Slum Dispute

     (CN) – A New Jersey township must cough up files related to claims that its new development plan discriminates against poor black and Hispanic residents, a federal judge ruled.
     The Gardens is the only neighborhood in Mt. Holly, N.J. with predominantly black and Hispanic residents, almost all of whom earn less than 80 percent of the area’s median income. Most earn much less, according to census data.
     Mt. Holly’s plan to replace the neighborhood’s existing 329 homes with significantly more expensive housing units led to a lawsuit by Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action and 23 current and former residents.
     The plaintiffs allege that “many former residents who moved out of the Gardens under threat of condemnation or eviction have not been able to find comparable housing at locations as desirable as the Gardens community and have been forced to live under worse conditions and/or pay higher housing costs.”
     After a federal judge granted the township summary judgment before it had even filed an answer, the 3rd Circuit reversed in September 2011. That ruling found the trial court had improperly rejected statistics submitted by the residents, showing that only 21 percent of Burlington County minority residents could afford units in the redeveloped Gardens.
     The lower court improperly challenged that number “as both too broad, because it took account of the entire population of Burlington County, and too narrow, because it failed to consider minorities outside the county who might move in,” the ruling states (emphasis in original).
     Most troubling for the appellate panel was the District Court’s “conflation of the concept of disparate treatment with disparate impact,” according to the ruling.
     “The District Court essentially agreed with the township that because 100 percent of minorities in the Gardens will be treated the same as 100 percent of non-minorities in the Gardens, the residents failed to prove there is a greater adverse impact on minorities,” the appellate judges said.
     The Supreme Court granted the township’s petition for certiorari June 17, noting that it would consider whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.
     Meanwhile the township is also trying to withhold all personal information, including the new addresses, phone numbers and financial information, of former residents who were required to relocate.
     The plaintiffs claim, however, that they need these files to discover “whether [former residents] had been provided adequate relocation assistance, felt improperly pressured to leave, and had been relocated outside of the township.”
     U.S. Magistrate Judge Joel Schneider sided with the plaintiffs June 24, holding that “it would be fundamentally unfair for defendants to know the names and current locations of relevant witnesses while denying plaintiffs access to the same information.”
     The township claimed that, due to “bad blood” between current and former residents, many families fear being harassed for moving out, but Schneider called this a “broad, unsubstantiated allegation.”
     The judge also tossed aside Mt. Holly’s claim that disclosing the files would “embarrass” former residents.
     “Since the information is relevant it must be produced,” Schneider wrote. “While Mount Holly’s concerns for the protection of the former Gardens residents’ privacy interests is [sic] legitimate, its concerns are overblown. The personal information will only be used by plaintiffs’ counsel to locate former Gardens residents for this litigation. Therefore, providing plaintiffs’ counsel with the complete relocation files will only minimally compromise the former residents’ privacy expectations. None of the personal information will be released to the public, and none of the information will be used for an illegitimate purpose. It is not sufficient for defendants to produce their relocation files but yet redact the identifying information for the relocated residents. If they so choose, plaintiffs have a right to interview (or depose) the witnesses. Plaintiffs are not bound to accept Mount Holly’s assurances that its relocation efforts were properly done and the relocated residents are satisfied with their new accommodations.”

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