NEW ORLEANS (CN) - The United States claims St. Bernard Parish used a "blood relative ordinance" to deny African-Americans housing and keep them out of the parish after Hurricane Katrina.
St. Bernard Parish is just east of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Katrina.
A Louisiana parish is the equivalent of other states' counties.
In its federal complaint, the United States says St. Bernard Parish enacted an illegal "blood relative ordinance" after the hurricane to prevent homeowners from renting to anyone not related to them by blood.
Two other plaintiffs filed similar complaints this week: the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Advocacy Center, and Nola Capital Group, of South Dakota.
All three plaintiffs accuse the parish of violating the Fair Housing Act, and ask the court to enjoin it from its "multiyear campaign to limit rental housing opportunities for African-Americans in St. Bernard Parish under the pretext of post-Hurricane Katrina recovery planning."
In his complaint, the U.S. attorney general says that in July 2005, before Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was approximately 86 percent white and 10 percent African-American, and just 4 percent of the African-Americans were homeowners.
Neighboring Orleans Parish was 29 percent white and 67 percent African-American.
"As a result of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish and the surrounding communities lost, and have yet to fully replace, a significant percentage of their single and multi-family rental housing stock," the complaint states.
The average vacancy rate for rental housing in St. Bernard Parish from 2005 to 2009 was 6.3 percent.
On Nov. 25, 2005, two months after Hurricane Katrina, the parish imposed a 12-month moratorium on re-establishment or development of any multifamily dwellings without parish approval.
Uncle Sam says that in the metropolitan New Orleans housing market, including St. Bernard Parish, 52 percent of African-American households are renters, while just 25 percent of white households rent.
"The parish's moratorium was intended to and had the effect of limiting or reducing the supply of multifamily housing of more than five units and disproportionately disadvantaged African-Americans seeking to rent housing in St. Bernard Parish," the complaint states.
"On March 7, 2006, the parish passed another moratorium, this time prohibiting the rental of single-family homes in St. Bernard Parish allegedly to 'preserve the integrity of single-family neighborhoods ... until such time as the post-Katrina real estate market in the parish stabilizes.'" (Ellipsis in complaint.)
Four months later, the parish enacted an ordinance to restore single-family rentals, but required renters to obtain a permit from the parish. Not long after, the parish allowed renters who rented to persons "related by blood" to do so without a permit.
The United States says" "The parish's blood-relative exception disproportionately disadvantaged African-Americans seeking to rent housing in the predominantly white community of St. Bernard Parish."
"The parish's stated purpose in enacting the blood-relative ordinance was to reestablish 'preexisting neighborhoods,' and to maintain the 'integrity,' 'quality of life,' 'family atmosphere' and 'quiet enjoyment' of 'long established neighborhoods.'
"However, a council member who voted against the ordinance stated that it was passed 'to block the blacks from living in these areas.'
"Craig Taffaro, a member of the Parish Council at the time, drafted and sponsored the blood-relative ordinance. Taffaro admitted at the time that 'all we're doing is saying we want to maintain the demographics.'
"The parish's blood-relative exception was designed to be a proxy for race in order to artificially fix the racial composition of renters in St. Bernard Parish."
In August 2007, the parish issued a new renter permit process that included a $250 application fee, granted the parish discretion to deny permits, and allowed no more than two permits to be issued for every 500 feet in districts zoned for single-family use.
"The parish has denied homeowner-applicants, including African-Americans, permits to rent their single-family dwellings," the complaint states.
The parish rescinded its permit requirement in April 2011.
Between 2008 and 2011, 10 residents and homeowners complained to the Department of Housing and Urban Development that the parish racially discriminated through its permitting process. (g 35)
After investigation, the matter was turned over to the attorney general.
In 2009, the parish made comprehensive revisions to its zoning ordinances that eliminated multifamily housing as a permitted use in four zones. The revisions restricted new multifamily dwellings - defined as housing with three or more units - to just one zone.
"Through the comprehensive revisions, the parish reduced the land available for development of multifamily housing as of right by 99.3%, leaving only 109 acres for such developments," the complaint states.
The comprehensive revisions "severely limited or reduced the supply or availability of multi-family housing of more than three units and disproportionately disadvantaged Africa-Americans seeking to rent housing in St. Bernard Parish."
A federal judge in October 2011 ruled in a case brought in 2006 against St. Bernard Parish by the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center that the sequence of events surrounding zoning requirements in St. Bernard Parish "suggests the defendants have doggedly attempted to preserve the pre-Katrina demographics of St. Bernard Parish" and "presents ample evidence of intentional discrimination" against African-Americans.
"On January 28, 2011, John Trasvina, HUD's Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, filed a housing discrimination complaint on behalf of the HUD secretary ... alleging that the parish violated the Fair Housing Act by enacting and implementing the comprehensive revisions so as to continue to exclude African Americans from residing in the parish. On January 20, 2012, HUD referred this complaint to the Department of Justice as a potential pattern or practice violation of the Fair Housing Act," the complaint states.
In 2008, the parish and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Advocacy Center entered into a consent order settling the center's lawsuit against the parish.
Four months later, Provident Realty Advisors, a multifamily housing developer, approached Parish President Craig Taffaro with plans to develop four multifamily, affordable-housing developments in the parish at a cost of $60 million.
The parish was told that $34 million of the funding would come from low-income housing tax credits. The tax credits would expire if not used by 2010.
In response, the parish enacted a moratorium on new construction of multifamily housing.
"Between July 2009, and November 2011, the court repeatedly found the parish in contempt over its attempts to prevent or impede the construction of Provident's affordable-housing developments," the government says.
The U.S. seeks an injunction and civil penalties.