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"Fianl Report from our Rhode Island Legal Services/Project"

March 1992 issue of Poverty & Race

One of PRRAC's earliest grants has contributed significantly to the successful effort by minority plaintiffs in Providence, RI to require that replacement housing provided by the Providence Housing Authority (PHA) meet Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act standards. The litigation, Project BASIC v. Kemp, filed in April of 1989, sought to prevent the demolition of 240 units of the predominantly black and Latino-occupied Hartford Park public housing project located in a predominantly white census tract, and challenged the PHA's plan to locate over 75% of the replacement units in predominantly minority sections of the city. The vast majority of persons residing in or on the waiting list for family public housing in Providence are racial minorities.

Fair housing violations

Project BASIC, a statewide, low-income and minority advocacy organization, was represented by Rhode Island Legal Services (RILS). RILS attorney Steven Fischbach argued that the proposed demolition and replacement housing plan violated the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Act, and the 5th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution because they discriminated against racial minorities, and had the purpose and effect of increasing racial segregation in Providence.

In late 1989 the U.S. District Court refused to enjoin the demolition, holding that plaintiffs race discrimination claims were not ripe for adjudication. However, the Court ruled that the sites for the replacement units had to comply with Fair Housing Act and Civil Rights Act requirements, and ordered the PHA to complete construction of the replacement units within 23 months.

The main focus of the litigation then shifted to the challenge to the PHA plan for replacement housing. To prevail on this issue, plaintiffs needed to convince the Court that the sites proposed would perpetuate or increase housing segregation in Providence, and that those effects would disproportionately harm black families, who comprised 90% of the waiting list for family public housing, and would harm the City of Providence as a whole. In order to document those effects, RILS received a PRRAC grant to retain Yale Rabin, an urban planning analyst on the MIT faculty. Rabin has conducted numerous studies of the impact of public actions on low-income minority groups and appeared many times as an expert witness in housing and land-use related civil rights litigation during the past 25 years.

Continued lawlessness

At the time Rabin was retained, the PHA had already demolished the 240-unit project and had proceeded, with HUD approval, to acquire sites for and construct over half of the replacement units. HUD had directed the PHA to locate at least half of the 240 replacement units "outside areas of minority concentration" (defined by HUD as census tracts having a larger proportion of minorities than the citywide average of 21.4% in 1980); and to proceed with a construction schedule that would result in equal numbers of units under construction inside and outside areas of minority concentration. However, it soon became clear that neither HUD nor the PHA was taking these directives seriously.

Despite the HUD directives, PHA had proceeded to locate most sites in areas of minority concentration, and had begun the great bulk of construction in those areas. Delays in proceeding in predominantly white areas had resulted in the loss of sites for at least 36 units due to racially motivated opposition. In October, 1990, in response to these actions, RILS filed a Motion for Enforcement of the Court Order that sites for the replacement units comply with the Fair Housing Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Research support

The District Court set a trial date for 8 April, 1991, ordered all parties to file pretrial motions by mid-February, and indicated it would rule on plaintiffs motion after trial. HUD and PHA then moved for summary judgement, contending that HUD's approval of sites satisfied the requirements of the Fair Housing Act, and that HUD's lawful approval of sites insulated PHA from liability under the Fair Housing Act.

In March of 1991 RILS, on behalf of Project BASIC, responded to the summary judgement motions by contending that there were genuine issues of material fact that required resolution of plaintiffs claims at trial. In support of its position, Project BASIC submitted Professor Rabin's report containing his evaluation of the replacement housing sites and his conclusions that the sites as proposed would reduce opportunities for low-income minority families to live in integrated areas, increase the level of minority concentration in existing areas of minority concentration, reinforce the identity of areas of minority concentration, and increase the level of segregation in public housing.

Rabin's analysis demonstrated that the PHA's site proposals and their demographic consequences were significantly different from what PHA initially represented them to be. By superimposing the proposed sites on a 1980 block map of minority population, it became clear that the vast majority of sites, even those within majority white tracts, had been located in or adjacent to existing minority concentrations. By comparing the proposed sites to a time-series (1960, 1970, 1980) set of block maps of minority population, it became evident that almost all sites approved to date were in areas already in transition from white to minority. In some cases proposed sites in majority white tracts were
separated from heavily minority concentrated areas by nothing more than the imaginary line on the map representing the tract boundary.

In addition, analysis of the demographic, trends revealed by the time-series set of maps strongly suggested that reliance by the PHA and HUD on 10-year-old 1980 Census tract data had the effect of substantially understating the actual degree of minority concentration that existed in 1990 in several areas claimed by the PHA to be majority white. These changes, predicted from the evidence of the time-series maps, were subsequently confirmed by 1990 Census data, which fortunately became available just prior to the beginning of settlement negotiations in April of 1991.

Finally, in addition to their neglect of the demographic changes that had occurred during the decade since the 1980 Census, neither the PHA nor HUD had made any attempt to assess the demographic changes that would result from implementation of the PHA's proposals. In one tract which was undergoing rapid racial transition, but which was 0.8% below the citywide minority population average of 21.4% in 1980, the PHA proposed, and HUD approved, the location of 36 replacement units. Construction and Mcupancy of those units would have increased the minority proportion of that tract to nearly 24%.

On 2 April, 1991 the District Court denied the PHA/HUD summary judgement motions and rejected the argument that HUD's approval of sites insulated PHA from liability under the Fair Housing Act. The Court strongly hinted that it would find PHA and HUD in violation of the Fair Housing Act, and urged the parties to settle.

The consent decree

A few days later, on the eve of trial, Project BASIC settled the litigation with HUD, the PHA, and the City of Providence. HUD and the PHA agreed, respectively, to fund and construct the remaining 109 Hartford Park replacement units in Providence census tracts that, according to the 1990 Census, have a lower proportion of minorities than the city as a whole, and outside two tracts that already have large numbers of public housing units. The units are to be completed within three years of the settlement agreement.
Moreover, should the PHA decide to sell any of the replacement units, the PHA will seek funding from HUD for new public housing units to replace each unit sold.

The City of Providence agreed not to interfere with the development of the 109 replacement units; to keep Project BASIC informed of all applications for housing assistance; and to perform, at Project BASIC's request, a Fair Housing Assessment of any housing assistance application. The City will also actively involve Project BASIC in the annual development of its Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS). The City affirmed its support for additional shelter and transitional housing facilities for the homeless; agreed to use federal, state, and local housing assistance to increase the supply of low-income housing and facilities for the homeless outside areas of minority concentration; agreed to encourage and permit the development of shelters and low-income housing in all Providence neighborhoods; and agreed not to support the demolition and sale of other public housing without obtaining one-for-one replacement of those units with other public housing units. Finally, the City will incorporate each of these policies into its CHAS.

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