When zoning becomes segregation tool

Dallas court ruling that suburb's laws are 'discriminatory' may reverberate across US.

By almost any standards, Sunnyvale is a bucolic playground. The town is a collection of large and modest homes, scattered on one-acre and four-acre lots, amid the rolling blackland prairies just 10 minutes east of Dallas.

There's just one problem with Sunnyvale, according to a lawsuit. The city's zoning process, for years, didn't allow apartments and other low-income housing, and this had the effect of excluding people of modest means, especially blacks and Hispanics.

Last week, a federal court ordered the town to halt its "racist" zoning practices and told town leaders to encourage more low-income housing.

It's a decision that's shocked the citizens of Sunnyvale and brought cheers from a collection of developers and advocates for the poor. It is also a decision that is likely to reverberate in communities around the US that have similar laws.

Experts say that so-called "fiscal zoning" rules like those found in Sunnyvale are quite common, and often difficult to challenge in court.

"One of the major powers that municipalities cling to is the power of self-determination," says Michael Schill, director of New York University Law School's Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. "It's very difficult to prove racist intent, but if you have people dumb enough to speak their racist motives, then it's easier."

Like many suburbs, Sunnyvale sprouted up as a rural bedroom community in the boom years after World War II. The town incorporated in 1953, after Dallas began searching for low-income "Negro housing" in rural plots around Sunnyvale and neighboring Mesquite. Townsfolk say the town incorporated to keep control of their destiny and to maintain property values. Critics say the town acted for one reason: to keep out blacks.

Whether by accident or design, the town of Sunnyvale is now a relatively affluent community, where the median home price is $193,000 and the population is 94 percent white.

The lawsuit against Sunnyvale began in 1987, when Mary Dews, a low-income black resident of Dallas, tried to use a federal Section 8 housing voucher to obtain an apartment in Sunnyvale. Since there were no apartments, Ms. Dews (now deceased) filed suit, backed by developers who had been denied permits to build low-income housing. Town leaders say their zoning laws now allow for smaller lots and multifamily homes, but so far, no builder has been willing to build them.

There is a tremendous amount of court precedent, particularly in the Northeast, that makes it easier to force towns to accept lower-income housing. But what has made the case in Sunnyvale more convincing, legal experts say, is the fact that town leaders, according to a court complaint, admitted their motives were based on race.

James Northrup, a developer, remembers meeting with a town official who managed a property next to one that Mr. Northrup wanted to develop.

Northrup says he asked if there was a way to persuade the council to allow multifamily housing on lots smaller than an acre. The official told Northrup he preferred one-acre lots, because "it keeps the [blacks] out."

"My reaction was, 'I can't believe this guy is saying this,' " says Northrup, who says he just nodded and then went back to his truck and scribbled down the conversation on a pad of paper. "Frankly, I don't like any kind of racial law, like reverse racism or quotas, one bit. But when you take these really personal prejudices and you try to embody them in laws, that offends me."

Reginald Smith, co-owner of Hammer-Smith Corp., a developer of low-income housing and one of the plaintiffs in the case, also describes a disturbing experience. Within minutes of his walking into Sunnvyale council chambers to make a proposal, Mr. Smith, who is black, says he heard someone in the crowd saying, "we don't want [blacks], we don't want Mexicans."

"It was a joke to everybody else, but it kicked me in the stomach," says Smith, who tape recorded the exchange.

Dallas Housing Authority officials say the need for low-income housing is immense. In the Dallas area, there is a two-year waiting list for public and subsidized housing. DHA authorities say they have reached cooperative agreements with most other cities in Dallas County, but not with Sunnyvale.

In Sunnyvale itself, however, residents say they can't believe that anyone would think of their town as racist. They say zoning laws were written to protect home values and to restrict growth, something many towns are trying to do around the country. "The argument that our policies have the effect of racism, that is very puzzling and troubling," says city attorney Gary Spencer, adding that the town will ask for a new trial. He says several developers simply refused to conduct engineering and other impact studies required by the town, adding, "what citizens don't want to do is pay for someone else's development."

Eugene Standifer, an affable antiques dealer, says open space and greenery have more to do with the town's motives than race. "There's a lot of other reasons people have to do this kind of zoning. This is a rural area. People came here for that."

Inside the East Fork Cafe, where a sign reads "Today's special: chicken fried steak," owner Mohsen "Moe" Alavizadeh says people should have a right to do what they want in their community. In any case, he doesn't see any racism in Sunnyvale. "Race is not the issue," says Mr. Alavizadeh, an Iranian immigrant. "It's quality of life."

But Mike Daniel, plaintiffs' attorney, doesn't buy the quality-of-life argument. Developers made three attempts to build apartments, and in each case they were turned down, Mr. Daniel says, in ways that were "insultingly obvious barriers to poor people of color."

"It was allowed into the record," says Daniel. "One town councilman suggested they were going to continue the ban on apartments until a federal judge told them how many [blacks] per acre they had to have."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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