Sunday, February 05, 2017

Local Zoning Board Yields To Fierce, Stereotypically-Coded Public Pressure In Nixing Proposed Low-Income Housing Complex; Town Now Finds Itself Having To Promote Project & On The Hook For $375K In Developer's Legal Fees In Settlement Of Fair Housing Complaint

In Whitehall Township, Pennsylvania, The Morning Call reports:
  • Over the next year, the federal government will be watching Whitehall to ensure the township erases any barriers to fair housing as part of a settlement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    The settlement, made public [] on the township's website, will also require Whitehall to take a proactive stance in promoting the Lofts at Fullerton, the controversial affordable housing project proposed by the PathStone Corporation that sparked the HUD complaint. Whitehall is also on the hook for the Rochester, N.Y.-based nonprofit's $375,0000 in legal fees.

    Breaching the settlement, which was finalized in December, would draw the attention of the U.S. Attorney General's Office, according to the terms of the settlement.
    The Lofts housing project was pegged for the former Fuller Sportswear garment mill at 215 Quarry St., but denied by the Whitehall Zoning Hearing Board in May 2014 on the basis that there was inadequate parking for the 49-unit apartment building. Residents turned out in force to oppose the project, complaining that an apartment building would crowd and change the makeup of the neighborhood.

    The comments leveled at these public hearings were the basis of PathStone's appeal, which was filed through HUD in April 2015 rather than through the county court. The nonprofit alleged that Whitehall's denial amounted to fair housing discrimination, and the complaint cited quotes from residents using prejudicial language to oppose the project.(1)(2)

    The HUD complaint threatened to turn off the spigot for federal Community Development Block Grants for Whitehall as well as some costly fines.

    Whitehall has denied any discriminatory action and has admitted no liability in the settlement agreement. Both the township and PathStone have agreed to refrain from any further legal action over the matter.
For the story, see Whitehall must pay $350,000 in legal fees, promote affordable housing project.
(1) From the developer's complaint filed with HUD:
  • At both public hearings, the Board permitted objectors to express stereotypical and discriminatory views concerning the prospective low- and moderate income residents of The Lofts. For instance, one community member objected, worrying about “having HUD in your backyard, what it’s going to do to your property value.” Another objector noted that, “[w]hatever kind of housing goes in there is going to drastically change that entire neighborhood, drastically.” Finally, a community member stated that, “if this is allowed, we’re going to need a lot more police surveillance in the area than what we have now.”1 [complaint indicates that these comments were taken from the transcript of a May 14, 2014 zoning board hearing].

    In denying the relief sought by PathStone for The Lofts, the Board adopted — and was influenced by — the discriminatory views of objectors.
(2) It should also be noted that the Whitehall Township Hearing Board apparently had no problem unanimously approving plans for converting the same site into a multi-unit, market rate condominium housing complex for seniors in 2006 (a project that never got off the ground), but yet rejected plans when the intended development was for affordable housing.

From the complaint:
  • Most pertinent here, on one occasion, in 2006, the Board unanimously granted relief in the appeal of Whitehall Manor Retirement Condos, Inc. to convert the use from a garment factory non-conforming use to a non-conforming use with 43 market-rate condominium units for senior citizens, and reduced the requirement for on-site parking. The Board also granted variances from the maximum impervious coverage and density.

    Apparently, the Whitehall Manor developer did not proceed, and neither did a subsequent applicant for whom the Board again approved a non-conforming use as self-storage units. As a consequence, the parcel remains disused and the buildings continue to deteriorate.

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