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The Law

When Does the Fair Housing Act Become a Factor in a Town's Redevelopment Plans?

Using legal powers to protect communities

Joyce Starling, 77, says she's not leaving her home in Mount Holly, N.J. "I'm not moving," said Starling, a widow since 1985. "Through God's grace, I roll with it." The town has a different idea.

See also: Two independent living lawsuits settle.

Since 2003, Starling and her Mount Holly Gardens neighbors have fought in public meetings and in state and federal courts for the right to stay, while the town has fought just as hard to get them to leave. After a series of legal setbacks, a federal court ruling has given Starling some hope.

Starling's neighborhood dates back to the 1950s. For years, the town has tried to redevelop the area. But homeowners felt financially trapped because the town's relocation allowance was inadequate for the area, and the prices of the 500 planned homes and apartments were beyond the financial reach of most of the Mount Holly Gardens residents, who are predominantly poor, older and minority.

In 2003, Citizens in Action, a residents' group, went to court. Since then, the town has demolished all but 70 of the original 329 homes. Today, according to the September court ruling, "residents living amongst the destruction were forced to cope with noise, vibration, dust and debris," not to mention exposed walls, leaking roofs, hanging wires and exposed masonry joints.

The town's objective is to upgrade the neighborhood, and in previous court rulings the goal of developing the area trumped residents' claims that the project discriminated against them.

Finally, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the residents have the right to a trial, since they may have been victims of racial discrimination. In the meantime, they can stay in their homes. The court ruled that while towns and cities have broad discretion to improve an area, towns like Mount Holly are bound by laws that prevent discrimination under the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA).

It's the first time any circuit court has said that the FHA applies in the redevelopment context, according to Susan Ann Silverstein, senior attorney for AARP Foundation Litigation, which joined South Jersey Legal Services to represent the residents. "When communities use their legal powers to eliminate blight, they must protect the residents who live there," she said.

What it means to you: If you are affected by a public development project, you may get court protection if you are a victim of discrimination.

Also of Interest: Towns and cities prepare for aging populations.

Emily Sachar is a journalist and author based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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