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Huntington Branch, NAACP v. Town of Huntington

    Citation

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    Bloomberg Law

    Brief Fact Summary. A town refused to rezone to allow construction of a housing unit in which mostly minorities would reside.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. In a disparate impact suit brought under the Fair Housing Act (Act), an intent to discriminate is not needed to establish the plaintiff’s prima facie case. The plaintiff must only show a disproportionate impact or a segregate effect by the defendant’s actions. Then, the defendant has to show it could not achieve its goals with a less discriminatory alternative.

    Facts. The Town of Huntington (Defendant) had a very small black population. A larger proportion of the black population requires subsidized housing than the white population. A disproportionately large percentage of families in existing subsidized projects are the minority. Under Defendant’s zoning ordinance, multi-family housing is permitted only in an R-3M district, where 52% of the residents are minority. In response to a need for subsidized housing, an organization decided to sponsor an integrated housing project for low-income families. The organization determined that the project could foster racial integration only if it were located in a white neighborhood. They found a suitable site, and sought to have the property rezoned so as to allow multi-family rental construction. The Town Board rejected any zoning change. The Huntington Branch of the NAACP (Plaintiffs) alleged that Defendant violated the Act by restricting private construction of multi-family housing and by refusing
    to rezone the parcel where the organization wished to build.

    Issue. When a town uses land in a way that has a disparate effect on a racial minority group, will that be enough for a violation of the Fair Housing Act?

    Held. Yes.
    The Act was enacted to provide fair housing throughout the country.
    This case requires a disparate effects analysis, which examines a facially-neutral policy or practice for its differential impact or effect on a particular group.
    A prima facie case is established by showing that the challenged practice of the defendant actually or predictably results in racial discrimination; in other words, that it has a discriminatory effect. There does not need to be a showing of discriminatory intent.
    Once a prima facie case is presented, the burden shifts to the defendant to prove that his action furthered a legitimate government interest and that no alternative would serve that interest with less discriminatory effect.
    The discriminatory effect of a rule arises in two contexts: adverse impact on a particular minority group and harm to the community generally by the perpetuation of segregation. Here, refusing to permit construction of a subsidized housing unit reinforces racial segregation in housing. Refusing to amend the restrictive zoning ordinance to permit the construction significantly perpetuated segregation in the town.
    The failure to rezone had a substantial adverse impact on minorities because a higher percentage of minorities need subsidized rentals.
    As to the defendant’s burden, he must provide both a bona fide and legitimate justifications for his actions and show that no less discriminatory alternative can serve those ends. The justification must be of substantial concern that it would justify a reasonable official in making the determination. Here, Defendant’s goal can be achieved by less discriminatory means, by encouraging development in other areas with tax incentives or abatements.
    Defendant raised traffic issues and health hazards as justifications. The health reasons were only thought of after litigation started, so it was not a legitimate problem. Defendant’s justifications were weak and inadequate.
    When balancing the showing of discriminatory effect against Defendant’s justifications, the balance should be more readily struck in favor of the Plaintiff when it is seeking only to enjoin the Defendant from interfering with its own plans rather than attempting to compel the Defendant itself to build housing. Here, the showing of discriminatory effect resulting from Defendant’s refusal to rezone outweighs Defendant’s justifications. Thus, Defendant violated the Act.

    Discussion. Under the Fair Housing Act, a plaintiff does not need to show that a defendant’s actions were intentionally discriminatory. Instead, an action that has a disparate effect will be enough to violate the statute, i.e., if the defendant did not have a legitimate government interest in his actions.


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