AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys and other counsel represented residents challenging Mount Holly, New Jersey redevelopment plans that called for the acquisition by eminent domain and demolition of hundreds of homes in a neighborhood called “The Gardens” -- a cohesive, racially integrated, ethnically diverse community built in the 1950s. The settlement breaks new ground in protecting communities.
About 80 percent of Gardens residents are African-American and Hispanic (compared to 34 percent for all of Mount Holly), 90 percent with annual incomes of less than $40K, and one in seven is age 65 or older. Residents alleged that the Township wrongfully justified use of eminent domain to establish a redevelopment plan. Despite challenges to the plan, the Township began acquiring and vacating properties, causing neighborhood deterioration and property values of the remaining homeowners to nearly vanish. Many of the residents, despite wanting to stay in the Gardens, moved away.
Residents and former residents filed a lawsuit alleging that the Township could have adopted less drastic alternatives to remove “blight” than whole-scale redevelopment, but instead embarked on a plan that intended to displace the population in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA is a civil rights law designed to combat discrimination in both rental and home ownership markets. South Jersey Legal Services and the private law firm of Potter and Dixon co-counseled with AFL.
A landmark settlement approved at a special meeting of the Mount Holly Township Council allows Mount Holly Township to move forward with economic revitalization in the Gardens neighborhood while providing current residents of the neighborhood with an opportunity to stay and benefit from the redevelopment. Key aspects of the settlement agreement include:
- Construction on an expedited schedule within the Mount Holly Gardens neighborhood of 44 new emerging market homes.
- Twenty of the 44 houses will be provided to current residents of the Gardens in exchange for allowing the redevelopment of their existing homes.
- The first of the replacement houses will be ready for occupancy before the end of 2014. All of the phased new construction will be completed by no later than 2018.
- Existing residents will have the right to remain in the Gardens community pending the development of the new homes.
- Seven households who have elected to relocate out of the neighborhood will be compensated.
- The remainder of the Gardens development will go forward, creating additional new homes and commercial/retail development that will provide significant economic benefits to Mount Holly Township.
Residents had prevailed in their litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which was slated to hear arguments in December 2013, but because the parties reached settlement, that dispute was withdrawn by agreement before oral argument.
What’s at Stake
The outcome ensures that the older residents will be able to remain in their community as they age in safe and well-designed homes. Residents of all ages have worked together for the long haul to obtain this tremendous settlement and to uphold fair housing and equal opportunity for everybody in Mount Holly.
Mt. Holly Citizens in Action v. Township of Mount Holly was proceeding simultaneously before the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal district court of New Jersey and both cases have now been dismissed by agreement of the parties.