St. Bernard settles federal discrimination case

St. Bernard Parish, which for years has faced accusations that new housing and zoning rules adopted after Hurricane Katrina were aimed at keeping African-Americans from moving into the area, has agreed to pay $2.5 million and adopt a reform plan to settle separate fair housing lawsuits with the federal government and a group of individuals.

In some respects, the settlement mirrors the sweeping court agreement aimed at cleaning up the Police Department in New Orleans, which outlines a step-by-step reform plan to be carried out over a number of years.

Though not as comprehensive or detailed, it calls not only for compensation for the individual plaintiffs who claimed discrimination, but also concrete steps to make sure the parish takes a fair approach to housing in the future. It requires that St. Bernard establish a new Office of Fair Housing that will dole out property for new rental units and even spells out how much it will have to pay the new office’s coordinator and how much it must spend on marketing each year.

In return, the Justice Department, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and eight individual plaintiffs have agreed to drop lawsuits against the parish. U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan signed off on the deal Friday.

“This is historic,” said James Perry, executive director at the Greater New Orleans Fair Action Housing Center, which has been doing battle with officials in St. Bernard over housing policy since 2006 and represented some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Perry noted that St. Bernard is still in the process of appealing a separate lawsuit filed by an out-of-town developer that’s been trying to open a new housing complex in the parish, but he said the latest settlement may signal a less-combative stance on the part of local officials.

“The approach by the parish generally has been to fight discrimination allegations to the bitter end,” Perry said, but in this case officials have agreed to a “reasonable” settlement ahead of trial, which was set to begin Monday. “It makes me optimistic that they’re ready to be reasonable about affordable rental housing in their community.”

Fair Housing advocates began raising alarms about potential discrimination in St. Bernard shortly after Katrina, whose floodwaters destroyed nearly all of the parish’s housing.
Facing the prospect of a post-storm building boom, the Parish Council passed an ordinance that barred new multifamily developments and kept owners of single-family homes from renting to anyone except blood relatives, a red flag since most of St. Bernard’s pre-storm homeowners were white. Craig Taffaro, a parish councilman at the time who went on to become parish president and now works in Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration, authored the new rules.

Perry’s group led the charge to get them overturned, convincing a judge in 2008 that St. Bernard had violated the Fair Housing Act.

Then came a protracted battle over plans by a Dallas-based firm called Provident Realty Advisors for a new housing complex, which led on several occasions to a judge threatening the parish with daily fines of $50,000 a day for blocking construction. Provident won that case also and now has the building open and occupied, but the ruling is still under appeal.

The Justice Department came down on the parish early in 2012 with a lawsuit accusing the parish of systematically limiting housing options for African-Americans.

Friday’s settlement represents what may be a definitive milestone, putting aside years of contentious litigation. Perry said he credits the turnover in leadership in St. Bernard with paving the way for a deal before the two sides came to trial.

“Our hope is that with Taffaro gone, it signals that they’re more reasonable,” Perry said, suggesting the new parish president, David Peralta, is focused on moving ahead “with his own goals and legacy of leadership.”

Taffaro declined to comment late Friday. Peralta did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

As outlined in a statement from the Justice Department, the deal means St. Bernard will have to pay $275,000 in damages, to be split between eight individual plaintiffs. The parish will also have to pay a total of $1.65 million in compensation for attorneys’ fees and other costs.

And it will have to establish an Office of Fair Housing with a coordinator who gets paid at least $40,000 a year and spends at least $25,000 annually on marketing and advertising to attract new renters and developers.

St. Bernard will also have to establish a program for handing out available land at no cost to “qualified persons” willing to build new housing for renters or rehabilitate existing units. The program will have to last for five years and hand out land worth a total of at least $83,000 each year. Parish officials will have to go through fair housing training and give periodic reports to the federal government on their progress in carrying out the plan.

“The Fair Housing Act is clear that local governments cannot use their zoning and land-use laws to discriminate on the basis of race,” Eric Halperin, an attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “People should have the freedom to choose where they live, without regard to race, and this innovative settlement will create greater housing opportunities in the New Orleans area.”