Eminent domain used to push out blacks, suit says

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The Justice Department has brought a lawsuit against Joliet, Ill., accusing the city of seeking to “limit or reduce” its number of black residents by seizing a federally subsidized housing development through eminent domain. The move displaces more than 750 low-income residents, more than 95 percent of whom are black.

The lawsuit, announced Friday, was filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago and accuses Joliet city officials of violating the Fair Housing Act when they took actions to condemn the privately owned Evergreen Terrace apartment complex, which provides 356 units of affordable housing in Joliet.

The city says it is merely trying to clear up urban blight, saying Evergreen Terrace has become a crime magnet. It also said the city has long planned to redevelop the site for affordable housing and to assist with the relocation of residents, putting aside $3.5 million.

But the Justice Department charged that the eminent domain action would have a “disproportionate adverse impact on African-Americans and operate to perpetuate segregation in Joliet.”

It charged that because of a lack of affordable housing in and around Joliet and because the city had not produced a meaningful plan to counteract the units’ elimination, many of the residents would have 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 them. He said the city has been pursuing a condemnation lawsuit against the property for several years because of its belief that other living arrangements within Joliet were 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 much more unfortunate,” Mr. Thanas said.

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

“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,” U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said.

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has come under fire in recent years for its actions in high-profile cases, including:

c Kinston, N.C., where it said the small North Carolina city had to keep political parties in local elections because equal rights for black voters could not be achieved without the Democratic Party. A federal judge in Washington later dismissed on technical grounds a legal challenge to that decision. While the city could have challenged the ruling, the Democrat-dominated City Council voted not to do so.

c During the George W. Bush administration, the division filed a civil complaint in U.S. District Court accusing the New Black Panther Party and two of its members of intimidating voters at a Philadelphia polling place during the 2008 election with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick. But under President Obama, the department moved to dismiss the lawsuit against the party; its chairman, Malik Zulu Shabazz; and Jerry Jackson, a Philadelphia party member. Justice later sought an injunction against Minister King Samir Shabazz, who carried the nightstick and bragged of it on a widely shared video clip. He has been barred from displaying weapons at polling places until 2012.

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