U.S. sues Joliet, Ill., in low-income housing battle

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The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the city of Joliet, Ill., alleging it violated the law in the taking through eminent domain a federally-subsidized affordable housing development that will displace more than 750 low-income residents, more than 95 percent of whom are black, the department said Friday.

The complaint, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, said Joliet city officials violated the Fair Housing Act when they took actions to condemn the Evergreen Terrace apartment complex, which provides 356 units of affordable housing.

The lawsuit charges that due to the lack of affordable housing in and around Joliet, and because the city has failed to produce a meaningful plan to counteract the effect of eliminating the 356 units, many of the residents would be left with nowhere in the city to live if the condemnation action is successful.

“Particularly in today’s economy, the city of Joliet’s proposed actions would have a devastating and unacceptable impact on Evergreen Terrace residents, who are disproportionately African-American,” said Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “Today’s action is a reminder that when local governments take unjustified actions that reduce opportunities for affordable housing, they risk violating federal anti-discrimination laws.”

Tom Thanas, Joliet’s city manager, agreed that residents of Evergreen Terrace deserve quality living conditions, but disagreed with the government’s contention that the city was unable to provide those conditions. He said the city has pursued a condemnation lawsuit against the property for several years because of its belief that other living arrangements within Joliet are viable options.

Mr. Thanas also noted that while the city welcomed third-party scrutiny of the case, the Justice Department lawsuit could take a long time to resolve, which will “likely mean a big legal bill for the cash-strapped city.

“That’s what makes the lawsuit even that more unfortunate,” Mr. Thanas said.

The U.S. Supreme Court refused In March of 2009 to hear an appeal by Evergreen Terrace owners, who tried to block the city’s case on constitutional grounds. Joliet’s lawsuit seeking eminent domain still is pending in federal court.

The Justice lawsuit alleges that the effect of the city’s actions and proposed actions is “to limit or reduce” the number of black residents residing within the city of Joliet. It said that such actions, if carried out, would have a “disproportionate adverse impact on African-Americans and operate to perpetuate segregation in Joliet.”

“The city of Joliet continues to try to condemn Evergreen Terrace while neglecting to propose any realistic plan for relocating its residents within the city, making it necessary for the federal government to take steps to protect the housing rights of these residents,” said U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald.

Rents at Evergreen Terrace are subsidized by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). About 731 of 764 residents, or 95.6 percent, are black, while approximately 16 percent of Joliet’s 147,433 residents identified themselves as black or African-American in the 2010 census.

Beginning in 2001, the owners of Evergreen Terrace applied to HUD to restructure the mortgages under the Multifamily Assisted Housing Reform and Affordability Act (MAHRA), in return for a commitment to continue providing affordable housing over the life of the mortgage.

Although the city contended the property was blighted, the Justice Department said HUD’s contractors determined the city’s objections lacked merit and there was a critical need for affordable housing in Joliet that would not be met if the restructuring for Evergreen Terrace was not approved. After HUD approved the restructuring in 2005, the city filed an action to take Evergreen Terrace by eminent domain.

The Justice Department will seek to consolidate its lawsuit with the pending condemnation action. A tenant of Evergreen Terrace filed a fair housing complaint with HUD in 2009, alleging that Joliet’s actions had violated the Fair Housing Act.

The Justice lawsuit also alleges the city’s actions violated the Housing and Community Development Act (HCDA), which prohibits unlawful discrimination in any program or activity funded in whole or in part by HUD. The suit said Joliet received more than $1 million from such programs in 2010.

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