Sussex Paying to Settle Bias Claim

Written by James Fisher
The News Journal
November 28, 2012

Sussex County will pay a developer $750,000 under the terms of a consent decree aimed at resolving a lawsuit that accuses the county of racially discriminating against a group trying to create a subdivision of low-income housing.

The agreement between the county and federal government, which was signed Wednesday, also will subject the county’s fair housing policies to scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice for the next four years. Sussex County also must name a fair housing compliance officer, and develop an affordable housing plan to promote equal housing opportunities.

The case centers on a proposal by a nonprofit, Diamond State Community Land Trust, for a 50-lot subdivision west of Trap Pond State Park, near Laurel. It planned to build low-priced, single-family homes, many of which were to be occupied by a group of families who had been neighbors in a Georgetown-area mobile home park.

Rene Arauz, 53, was one of the trailer park residents, many of whom were Latinos working in the poultry industry. The residents were served with eviction notices after the mobile home park owner, following a resident’s complaint, was cited for illegal cesspools in the park.

After years of legal battles, Arauz and his neighbors left the trailer park and formed New Horizons Cooperative, with the goal of buying land for a new community where they could own their homes, remain neighbors and farm part of the land together, according to a history by the Delaware Housing Coalition. The cooperative worked with Diamond State to draw up the plans.

At a 2010 public hearing on the proposal, the U.S. Department of Justice claimed in a court filing Wednesday, members of the Planning and Zoning Commission and people in the audience “made comments indicating a fear that the prospective residents of the New Horizons development would be racial or ethnic minorities, using terms that were impliedly derogatory and based on stereotypes of African-American and Hispanic residents.”

After the hearing, the planning commission voted to deny its subdivision application. Diamond State appealed, and the Sussex County Council upheld the commission’s decision later that year.

The county, in the consent decree, denies it was motivated by racial prejudice, and said all its decisions were based on nondiscriminatory reasons. But to resolve the lawsuit, it agreed to reconsider Diamond State’s application for the subdivision.

Amy Walls, president of the Diamond State board, said the agreement is a satisfying outcome – but it comes too late to help the original families in the New Horizons Cooperative.

“We’ve kept in touch with a couple of them over the years, but this project has been so far delayed that it has been hard to keep them engaged, to keep them from pursuing other housing options,” Walls said. “You can’t expect people to wait for you forever.”

Arauz may be an exception. Now living in a rented trailer in Bridgeville, he was pleased by news that the consent decree would give New Horizons another chance.

“It’s something you can’t describe. It’s my dream,” he said. “It’s what poor people needed. It’s something important.

“Maybe when we build that community, it will help set an example for the future,” Arauz added.

Walls said Diamond State intends to renew its push for the project, aimed at helping people earning about 80 percent of the area’s median income buy a home. Under the land trust model, the nonprofit owns the land and leases it to homebuyers, keeping the cost of homeownership lower than it would be otherwise.

“We’ll be serving people of low and moderate income,” Walls said. “But when you look at it, you’ll see a development anyone would be happy to call home.”

A recording of the 2010 Planning and Zoning Commission’s public hearing on the project doesn’t document any explicit discussion of New Horizons in racial terms. The commissioners asked the project’s backers if building the homes might lower property values for neighbors of the subdivision, and several members of the public expressed concerns about increased crime and traffic.

“As a mother of two, I strongly oppose this,” one woman told the commissioners. “I am really concerned about the crime rate that will increase, due to the fact that we have a cluster coming in next to us.”

The final person who stood up to comment, Buddy Joseph, who lived near the development, was blunter.

“My mother-in-law is 98 years old,” he said. “When she found out all these people was gonna be back there, she was scared to death. If this thing goes through, I’m putting up no-tresspassing signs. If anybody goes and messes with her, they’re gonna have to answer to me.

“I’m 72. I’ve lived a good life. I don’t care about you-know-what. I tell it like it is,” Joseph said.His comments brought laughter and applause from the crowd.”I don’t have nothing against these people,” Joseph continued before he sat down. “But I know how it’s going to be. I better not catch them hunting on my land, either.”

“All right, all right,” a commissioner said, as the crowd applauded Joseph. “You know we don’t allow that… I am sure none of these people [referring to the New Horizons applicants] mean harm to anyone here.”

Michael Vincent, the County Council president, said the consent agreement is a good outcome for Sussex County residents. It avoids further litigation, lets Diamond State move forward with its plans and “protects the taxpayers from paying anything toward the settlement of this complaint,” he said in a statement.

The county’s insurer will pay the $750,000 to Diamond State

Within a month, officials must name a fair housing compliance officer, who will receive any complaints of alleged housing discrimination in Sussex County. The settlement also opens the county’s affordable housing policies and decisions to Justice Department scrutiny.

The federal government must be notified if the county proposes new laws, regulations or policies regarding affordable housing, and must post reports online telling the public what steps it has taken to comply with the terms of the agreement.

The county also agreed to develop a marketing plan to encourage the development of fair, affordable housing for all residents regardless of race, and submit it to the Justice Department within 100 days. All county employees and officials who work on residential land-planning issues must receive annual training in what the consent decree requires them to do.

“Despite many of the claims in this case, we believe Sussex County has a solid track record of doing its part to help foster an environment for affordable housing and equal opportunity,” County Administrator Todd F. Lawson said in a statement. “Certainly, there is always room for improvement, and we recognize that. We believe this settlement gives the county an opportunity to expand on its efforts over the years.”

If Diamond State resubmits its proposal, the county must “specifically recognize” that the proximity to public transportation cannot be used as a basis to deny the application, and the county must be willing to write letters supporting the project to potential funders if asked by the nonprofit. The settlement terms don’t guarantee a resubmitted plan for New Horizons would be approved, but do smooth the path to acceptance.