Public housing tenants in Marrero are asking a federal court to reverse a decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allowing local officials to shut down their Jefferson Parish housing development and move them into the Section 8 housing assistance program.

The lawsuit, filed late Wednesday (May 3) in the Washington D.C. federal district court by attorneys representing current and former tenants of the Acre Road project, argues that the decision will force Acre Road’s predominantly Black tenants into impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods, effectively violating the federal Fair Housing Act. The suit names HUD and its secretary, Marcia Fudge, as defendants.

In March, HUD approved the Jefferson Parish housing authority’s proposal to demolish the brick duplexes that comprise nearly 200 units in the unincorporated West Bank community and to redevelop the land as a mixed-use project. Acre Road tenants under the plan are to receive vouchers through the Housing Choice Voucher, or Section 8, Program that subsidizes rents in privately owned properties.

But HUD’s green light goes against the agency’s civil rights mandate under the Fair Housing Act, the attorneys argue. In making its decision, the agency ignored data from the local tenant council and affordable housing advocates showing the shutdown would force the Black, low-income tenants of Acre Road into more impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods, as the plaintiffs claim.

HUD’s approval of the move, which the lawsuit says “is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, and not in accordance with the law,” also allegedly violates a federal law that governs how agencies make and change their policies. 

“The conversion of Acre Road is stripping residents of their homes, perpetuating a pattern of residential racial segregation and leaving individuals scrambling to find comparable residences,” said Thomas Silverstein of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in a Thursday statement. The group is representing the tenants along with Southeast Louisiana Legal Services and Washington law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.

“Amid an already tumultuous housing shortage, the conversion has added unmerited economic and social stress. Displacement without a sound and comprehensive relocation plan suggests an undeniable violation of the Fair Housing Act,” Silverstein said.

A HUD spokesperson on Thursday said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation. Benjamin Bell, the director of Jefferson Parish’s housing authority, also declined to comment.

But in its conversion plan, the Housing Authority of Jefferson Parish argued that using federal housing dollars to restore and maintain the deteriorating development, built in the 1960s, would be a “wasted investment” compared to issuing Section 8 vouchers. 

The suit challenges the legality of the process used by Jefferson Parish’s housing authority to close Acre Road, one of few permanently affordable housing sites in the parish. That process, called a “streamlined voluntary conversion,” was created by HUD in 2019 to more readily allow small public housing authorities — those with a portfolio of fewer than 250 public housing units — to get rid of their public housing developments in exchange for vouchers.

Under the streamlined process, agencies don’t have to conduct thorough analyses of how cost-effective their plans are, how the plans would impact surrounding neighborhoods, or how tenants would fare in local rental markets — studies otherwise required by federal law.

Attorneys for the tenants argue that those analyses, which look at whether such a conversion would violate the Fair Housing Act, are necessary. The plaintiffs want a judge to order HUD to get rid of the streamlined process altogether and for the agency to put together a “revitalization” plan for Acre Road that doesn’t disparately impact Black residents.

In the short-term, the plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction, which would bar HUD from taking any action that would advance the housing authority’s planned closure of the development pending the outcome of the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit comes as HUD, under the Biden administration, is proposing a new rule aimed at cracking down on housing discrimination. The suggested “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule would require communities receiving HUD dollars to develop plans aimed at tackling housing discrimination or face penalties, including the possible loss of funding.

Even prior to the plan’s approval, local officials had already embarked on the effort to move tenants out of Acre Road. HUD allowed Jefferson Parish to issue vouchers to residents who asked to leave, as some were eager to escape the physically deteriorating buildings beset with mold issues. 

Acre Road is the only development owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Jefferson Parish. And unlike neighboring New Orleans, the housing authority does not administer the local Section 8 program. Section 8 vouchers in the parish now fall to a special district overseen by the parish council that was created after years of political infighting and chaos at the housing authority and its board.

The lawsuit, coupled with previous letters sent to HUD, describe a local housing market unable to meet the needs of low-income renters. “Our members have faced discrimination and inflated rents in the private market that have made it nearly impossible to use their vouchers in high opportunity areas,” said Darin Collins, president of the Marrero Tenants Organization, in a statement.

That’s the case for three longtime Acre Road residents, all Black women, who are named as plaintiffs along with the tenants’ organization. One, Jolene Anderson, contacted more than 30 prospective rentals, but could only find apartments that cost more than her $1,646, three-bedroom voucher, according to the complaint. Another, Kedra James, looked at 40 units across Jefferson Parish’s east and west banks, but was only able to secure a unit in New Orleans’ Central City, where crime rates are higher than in Acre Road.

And a third, Candace Johnson, obtained a voucher in 2021 only to discover that landlords in whiter parts of the parish, like Metairie and Gretna, didn’t accept Section 8. Johnson looked at more than 25 units, but the only properties she found that took vouchers were in worse condition than her Acre Road home. Ultimately, Johnson’s voucher expired.

According to the suit, both Anderson and Johnson still live at Acre Road, where many empty units have been boarded up. As of last week, 49 of the complex’s 200 units were still leased, according to HUD data

Local officials originally designed Acre Road as segregated housing for poor Black residents in the 1960s. Tenants there proceeded to play a unique role in civil rights efforts of the 1970s and 1980s, as documented in a report determining the site is eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Note: This story has been updated to include HUD’s response to a request for comment.

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Michelle previously worked for The Associated Press in South Carolina and was an inaugural corps member with the Report for America initiative. She also covered statewide criminal justice issues for Mississippi...