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Opening Acts: March 28, 2016

Village of Garden City Used Zoning to Exclude Minorities:  Appeals Court Affirms District Court Ruling

Plaintiffs Permitted to Prove that Nassau County Promoted Segregation by “Steering” Affordable Family Housing to Lower Income Minority Communities

On March 23, 2016, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the 2013 ruling by District Judge Arthur Spatt that the Long Island Village of Garden City and its Board of Trustees violated the federal Fair Housing Act by engaging in illegal discrimination based on race and national origin, including perpetuating segregation.

In 2004, Garden City, a predominantly white, affluent suburb, rejected a zoning plan that would have made it possible to construct affordable housing on land owned by Nassau County that previously housed a social services building.  After local opposition at public meetings surfaced and residents offered subtle racial objections to affordable housing, the Village adopted low-density zoning that favored high-cost single-family homes and townhomes on the site.

Starting in 2004, after receiving a complaint from ACORN (now New York Communities for Change), the Fair Housing Justice Center (FHJC) provided investigative assistance by making open records requests, reviewing newspaper articles and public hearing minutes, conducting interviews, preparing a summary of the allegations, and referring ACORN to the Lawyer’s Committee to obtain legal representation.   The plaintiffs filed a federal lawsuit in 2005.   After the plaintiffs prevailed on a motion to dismiss in 2006 and a motion for summary judgment in 2012, the case went to trial in June 2013.  The plaintiffs, New York Communities for Change (NYCC) and MHANY Management, Inc., a non-profit housing development corporation, were represented by the National Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Hogan Lovells US LLP, and the Law Offices of Frederick K. Brewington.

In December 2013, Judge Spatt found that intentional “discrimination played a determinative role” in Garden City’s decision to reject the original zoning proposal and that African Americans and Latinos in Nassau County “bore the brunt of the negative impacts” of that decision.  In affirming Judge Spatt’s decision, Judge Rosemary S. Pooler, writing for the Appeals Court, cited the repeated use of racially loaded “code words” by white Garden City residents in public hearings as evidence that swayed Village officials to change the zoning to exclude multi-family housing.  The 102-page decision references how Garden City residents stated in public hearings that multi-family housing would alter the “character” or “flavor” of their community and result in the Village becoming more like Brooklyn or Queens.  Judge Pooler wrote that residents used “recognized code words about low-income, minority housing.”  The Court wrote that “the District Court was entitled to conclude…that something was amiss here, and that Garden City’s abrupt shift in zoning in the face of vocal citizen opposition to changing the character of Garden City represented acquiescence to race-based animus.”  Judge Pooler cited a Third Circuit case from 1996 which stated “Discrimination continues to pollute the social and economic mainstream of American life, and is often simply masked in more subtle forms.”

The recent Appeals Court ruling also rejected defendants’ claims that MHANY did not have standing because its bid to develop affordable housing on the Garden City site would never have been selected.  The Appeals Court stated that plaintiffs need not demonstrate with absolute certainty that their proposed affordable housing plan would have succeeded, they only needed to show that a competitive bid was submitted with a “realistic opportunity to proceed” but for the rezoning.

The Appeals Court also rejected the Village’s argument that plaintiffs’ claims were moot because Nassau County scrapped plans to sell the land to build housing and, instead, announced plans to build a new courthouse on the site.  While Nassau County claimed that the courthouse project was in response to an emergency need for a new building, Judge Pooler pointed out in her decision that “the county’s own filings indicate the county has been aware of the alleged urgent need for a new courthouse since at least 2004.”  Judge Pooler stated “Here, suspicious timing and circumstances pervade the county’s decision to build a courthouse.”  She added “Plaintiffs argue compellingly that various actions with respect to the courthouse project appear to track development of this litigation.”  She adds, “For example, the county announced the decision to build a courthouse on the Social Services site only on the eve of summary judgment motions.”

In light of a new HUD regulation on “disparate impact,” the Appeals Court stated that plaintiffs must have an opportunity to prove there is a less discriminatory alternative to the Village’s zoning decision that could have addressed the Village’s articulated legitimate policy concerns (e.g. increased traffic and overcrowding of schools).  As a result, the case was remanded back to the District Court for further findings on the plaintiffs’ disparate impact theory of liability against the Village.

Finally, the Court decided to reinstate Nassau County as a defendant so that Plaintiffs can present evidence that the County had been promoting segregation by “steering” affordable housing to higher poverty, minority communities. Nassau County admitted in documents submitted to HUD between 1995 and 2010 that it “targets its comprehensive community development efforts in a number of lower income and minority areas” and provides funding “to local governments and non-profits to acquire sites exclusively in low and moderate-income census tracts,” the Second Circuit observed.   While the Court stated that the Judge Spatt was correct to reject plaintiffs’ arguments that the County, as the owner of the land, had any control over the rezoning or that it had an affirmative duty to fight the Village’s discriminatory conduct, the plaintiffs should have been provided an opportunity to prove their claim that the County had violated the Fair Housing Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by engaging in steering and promoting segregation.

Co-counsel Joseph Rich, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee’s Fair Housing and Community Development Project, commented: “This is an extremely important case that was brought to break down discriminatory barriers to affordable housing erected by Garden City – what the Supreme Court has termed a “heartland” fair housing case designed to target zoning laws which unfairly exclude minorities from access to high opportunity neighborhoods and which perpetuate residential segregation.  The Court’s decision sends an important message to other communities in Long Island and throughout the country that such actions are illegal and cannot continue.”

Stanley Brown, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and a partner at Hogan Lovells US LLP in New York City, said:  “We hope that Garden City and Nassau County will now work with NYCC and MHANY Management to bring affordable housing to Garden City and other communities where it is needed.  Truly integrated communities is the goal.”

FHJC Executive Director Fred Freiberg congratulated the plaintiffs and their outstanding legal team and stated, “This decision should heighten the resolve and embolden fair housing advocates in New York and throughout the nation to challenge governments that employ discriminatory land-use and zoning practices aimed at excluding people of color and promoting residential segregation.”  Freiberg added, “This case gives us hope that even when the animus that inspires such egregious discriminatory conduct is simply masked or subtly disguised, it is still possible to obtain a just outcome and put a stop to these lawless and harmful practices.”