AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys have long represented New Jersey residents opposing a town redevelopment plan that would demolish neighborhoods made up of minority and older residents.
AFL attorneys are representing residents in challenges to a 2003 Mount Holly, N.J., redevelopment plan that calls for the acquisition by eminent domain and demolition of hundreds of homes in a neighborhood called "The Gardens."
The Gardens is a cohesive, racially integrated, ethnically diverse community built in the 1950s. Only about 20 percent of Gardens residents are white (compared with 66 percent for all of Mount Holly), 90 percent have annual incomes of less than $40,000, one in seven is age 65 or older and almost two-thirds are renters rather than homeowners. Despite challenges to the plan, the Township began acquiring and vacating properties, causing neighborhood deterioration and dropping property values of the holdout homeowners. Many of the prior residents, unable to find housing despite wanting to stay in the Gardens area, have moved away.
The lawsuit alleges that the Township could have adopted less drastic alternatives that would allow residents to remain but instead embarked on a plan that intended to displace a population in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA is a Civil Rights Act that is designed to combat discrimination in both rental and home ownership markets. Co-counseling with AFL are South Jersey Legal Services and the private law firm of Potter and Dixon.
An appeals court ruled that the trial court put too high a burden on plaintiffs, ignored evidence of discriminatory impact and misread the law: "The Township has broad discretion to implement the policies it believes will improve its residents' quality of life. But that discretion is bounded by laws like the FHA and by the Constitution, which prevent policies that discriminate on the basis of race."
What's at Stake
AARP works to protect the rights of older homeowners, eliminate discrimination against older and fixed-income homeowners, and ensure that people have the choice to age in the houses and neighborhoods they call home. AARP New Jersey is working with AFL attorneys in this case as they seek to establish appropriate criteria for designating a community like this a redevelopment area and, if it is so designated, determine a relocation benefit that will ensure that the health and welfare of older residents is maintained.
This decision prevents municipalities from steamrolling over resident rights, limits eminent domain and affirms that non-discrimination is always a check on government actions concerning housing and development. Before implementing a plan, government entities must know that they are not creating harm to protected classes or that if there is an adverse harm, the agencies are using the least discriminatory means to accomplish a legitimate outcome.
Mt. Holly Citizens in Action v. Township of Mt. Holly, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, returns to district court in New Jersey for trial, and is simultaneouldy before the U.S. Supreme Court.