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Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens In Action, Inc., A New Jersey Non-Profit v. Township of Mount Holly

September 13, 2011

MT. HOLLY GARDENS CITIZENS IN ACTION, INC., A NEW JERSEY NON-PROFIT CORPORATION; PEDRO AROCHO; REYNALDO AROCHO; ANA AROCHO; CHRISTINE BARNES; BERNICE CAGLE; LEON CALHOUN; GEORGE CHAMBERS; DOROTHY CHAMBERS; SANTOS CRUZ; ELIDA ECHEVARIA; NORMAN HARRIS; MATTIE HOWELL; NANCY LOPEZ; VINCENT MUNOZ; ELMIRA NIXON; LEONARDO PAGAN; ROSEMARY ROBERTS; WILLIAM ROBERTS; EFRAIM ROMERO; HENRY SIMONS; JOYCE STARLING; TAISHA TIRADO; VIVIAN BROOKS; ANGELO NIEVES; DOLORES NIXON; ROBERT TIGAR; JAMES POTTER; RADAMES TORRES-BURGOS; LILLIAN TORRES- MORENO; DAGMAR VICENTE; CHARLIE MAE WILSON; LEONA WRIGHT; MARIA AROCHO; PHYLLIS SINGLETON; FLAVIO TOBAR; MARLENE TOBAR; SHEILA WARTHEN; ALADIA WARTHEN,
APPELLANTS,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY, A MUNICIPAL CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY; TOWNSHIP COUNCIL OF TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY, AS GOVERNING BODY OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY; KATHLEEN HOFFMAN, AS TOWNSHIP MANAGER OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY; KEATING URBAN PARTNERS L.L.C., A COMPANY DOING BUSINESS IN NEW JERSEY; TRIAD ASSOCIATES, INC., A CORPORATION DOING BUSINESS IN NEW JERSEY; JULES K. THIESSEN, AS MAYOR OF THE TOWNSHIP OF MOUNT HOLLY.



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civil Action No. 1:08-02584) District Judge: The Honorable Noel L. Hillman

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Fuentes, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Argued July 14, 2011

Before: SLOVITER, FUENTES, and FISHER, Circuit Judges

OPINION OF THE COURT

Mount Holly Township (the "Township") has proposed a redevelopment plan that would eliminate the existing homes in its Gardens neighborhood, occupied predominantly by low-income residents, and replace them with significantly more expensive housing units. Appellants, an association of Gardens residents organized under the name Mt. Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, and 23 current and former residents of the neighborhood (collectively the "Residents") filed suit against the Township alleging violations of various anti-discrimination laws.

Before the Township filed an Answer or discovery on these allegations had taken place, the District Court granted summary judgment to the Township. Because the District Court misapplied the standard for deciding whether the Residents could establish a prima facie case under Title VIII and because it did not draw all reasonable inferences in the Residents' favor, we will reverse.

I.*fn1

The homes in this dispute are located in a 30-acre neighborhood called the Gardens in the Township of Mount Holly in Burlington County, New Jersey. The Gardens is the only neighborhood in the Township comprised predominantly of African-American and Hispanic residents. It is poor-- almost all of its residents earn less than 80% of the area's median income; with most earning much less.

The 329*fn2 homes in the Gardens are predominantly two-story buildings made out of solid brick. Built in the 1950s, the homes are attached in rows of 8 to 10 and are set back from the curving streets to allow for front and back yards, with alleys running behind each housing block. Two major commercial districts abut opposite sides of the neighborhood, which is only a mile away from the major downtown business district. Until 2004, the neighborhood was also home to a playground and a community center.

The 2000 census provides a snapshot of the neighborhood.*fn3 According to that data, the Gardens neighborhood was split evenly between rental properties (with a median rental price of $705 per month) and homeowners (the median cost of homeownership was $969 per month). Eighty-one percent of the homeowners had lived in their homes for at least 9 years; 72% of renters had lived there for at least five years. Of the 1,031*fn4 residents living in the neighborhood, 203, or 19.7%, were non-Hispanic Whites; 475, or 46.1% were African-Americans; and 297, or 28.8% were Hispanic, the highest concentration of minority residents within Mt. Holly. Almost all of these residents were classified as "low income"; indeed, most were classified as having "very low" or "extremely low" incomes.

The neighborhood was not perfect. For one, it was crowded. This created a parking shortage, which led residents to pave their backyards for use as driveways, which, in turn, led to drainage problems. In addition, the fact that the homes were owned in fee simple meant there was no one with a vested interest in maintaining common spaces, such as the alleys. Some of the owners were nothing more than absentee landlords, renting to individuals with little interest in maintaining the properties. Over the years, many of the properties fell into disrepair. Vacant properties were boarded up, some yards filled with rubbish, and parts of the area became blighted. Because the houses were connected to one another, the dilapidation of one house could and sometimes did lead to the decay of the adjoining houses. Finally, the dense population, narrow streets, and vacant properties facilitated crime. In 1999, 28% of crimes in the Township occurred in the Gardens, even though that neighborhood covers only 1.5% of the Township's land area.

These many problems were not ignored. Local community activists and business leaders worked to revitalize the Gardens through a private initiative that eventually came to be known as "Mt. Holly 2000." This community endeavor sought to reverse the neighborhood's decline by rehabilitating properties and increasing social services. Despite sporadic achievements--ten homes were renovated and a community policing center was established--the neighborhood's problems continued.

In the year 2000, the Township commissioned a study to determine whether the Gardens should be designated as an "area in need of redevelopment" under New Jersey's redevelopment laws. The resulting report, issued on November 8, 2000 concluded that the area offered a "significant opportunity for redevelopment" because of blight, excess land coverage, poor land use, and excess crime. (JA 699). That same year, the Township began to acquire properties in the Gardens. Those properties were left vacant.

A series of redevelopment plans followed. In 2003, the Township issued the Gardens Area Redevelopment Plan ("GARP"). This plan called for the demolition of all of the homes in the neighborhood and the permanent or temporary relocation of all of its residents. In their place, the plan provided for the construction of 180 new market-rate housing units, thirty of which would be available only to senior citizens. The plan was changed in 2005 to include a parcel of land immediately north of the Gardens. This plan, the West Rancocas Redevelopment Plan, also called for the destruction of most of the original Gardens homes, to be replaced with 228 new residential units composed of two-family dwellings and townhouses. Unlike the GARP, the West Rancocas plan provided for the optional rehabilitation of some of the original Gardens homes and allowed for the residents of those rehabilitated units to be temporarily relocated in phases so that they could remain in the neighborhood. The West Rancocas plan also contemplated that 10% of the 228 units would be designated as affordable housing. Finally, in 2008, the plan was changed again. This time, the Revised West Rancocas Redevelopment Plan called for construction of up to 520 houses, 75% of which could be townhouses and 50% of which could be apartments. The revised plan called for only 56 deed-restricted affordable housing units, 11 of which would be offered on a priority basis to existing Gardens residents. This revised plan did not include any rehabilitation of existing units.

At each stage of the process, many Gardens residents objected to the redevelopment, complaining about the destruction of their neighborhood and expressing fear that they would not be able to afford to live anywhere else in the Township. One resident complained that the house next to hers was torn down and that a bulldozer had hit her home, tearing the wall, cracking the ceiling, and shifting her roof. (JA 577-78, 1001). Another resident, a 70-year-old disabled homeowner, told the Township's Planning Board that, were he displaced, he would be unable to work and unable to afford a new home. (JA 1002). At one meeting in 2005, a planning expert testified that the West Rancocas plan was deficient because it only allowed rehabilitation as an option, without requiring or even encouraging it. He also said that 90% of the Gardens' existing residents would not be able to afford the newly-constructed homes and complained that the plan did not provide an estimate of affordable housing in the existing market for displaced residents. (JA 990, 1117).

Despite these complaints, work on the development continued. In February 2006 Keating Urban Partners, LLC, was chosen as the plan developer. Keating, in turn, hired Triad to develop a relocation plan. That plan, the Workable Relocation Assistance Plan ("WRAP"), was submitted to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs on September 28, 2006 and provided that all residents living in the Gardens on August 1, 2006 would receive relocation assistance. Qualified homeowners would receive $15,000 and a $20,000 no-interest loan to assist in the purchase of a replacement home. The Township offered to buy homes for between $32,000 and $49,000.*fn5 The estimated cost of a new home in the ...


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