08/05/2011 11:16 am ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

Joliet Low-Income Housing Discrimination? Feds Sue Over Lack Of Housing For Mostly Black Residents

The federal government filed a lawsuit Thursday against the city of Joliet, claiming their effort to condemn a low-income housing complex in the area will displace mostly black residents--without offering them other affordable housing options.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Joliet city officials have made several attempts to condemn Evergreen Terrace, a 356-unit apartment complex which houses 764 low-income residents. According to the DOJ, 95.6 percent of those residents are African-American, and tearing down the complex will "perpetuate segregation in Joliet.”

“Particularly in today’s economy, the City of Joliet’s proposed actions would have a devastating and unacceptable impact on Evergreen Terrace residents, who are disproportionately African American,” Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, said in a statement. “Today’s action is a reminder that when local governments take unjustified actions that reduce opportunities for affordable housing, they risk violating federal anti-discrimination laws.”

The lawsuit (PDF)
claims that by eliminating Evergreen Terrace without providing other housing options to a minority group, Joliet is violating the Fair Housing Act. City Manager Tom Thanas, however, denied these allegations in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.

"We welcome the lawsuit," Thanas told the paper. "We'll have a neutral party resolving the dispute and assessing the facts, and we believe the neutral party will see that the city's interest in protecting the residents' right should prevail."

The city's quest to condemn the housing complex has been going on for years. Crain's shared some background on the history--and politics--of the building:

The long-running dispute has pitted the owners of the federally subsidized complex — including civic leader and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Mr. Gidwitz — against city officials and a bipartisan array of Illinois congressional delegation leaders who supported the city’s efforts.

The city’s supporters have included former GOP Rep. Jerry Weller, former GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald and Democratic Sen. Richard Durbin, who co-signed a letter with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2005 asking the Department of Housing and Urban Development to delay restructuring the financing for Evergreen Terrace so that Joliet could acquire what it considered a blighted property through eminent domain.

"Although the city contended that the property was blighted, HUD’s contractors determined that the city’s objections lacked merit and that there was a critical need for affordable housing in Joliet that would not be met if the restructuring for Evergreen Terrace was not approved," the Department of Justice said in a statement. "Based on these conclusions, HUD approved the restructuring in 2005. In response, the city filed a lawsuit in 2005 to take Evergreen Terrace by eminent domain. Due to the mortgage restructuring, HUD is a defendant in the city’s condemnation action, which is currently pending in Federal Court in Chicago. The United States will seek to consolidate today’s lawsuit with the pending condemnation action."

Thanas told the Tribune that the city does plan on redeveloping the property, but Thursday's lawsuit claims the government has not seen a legitimate plan to help low-income residents find another place to live.

“The city of Joliet continues to try to condemn Evergreen Terrace while neglecting to propose any realistic plan for relocating its residents within the city, making it necessary for the federal government to take steps to protect the housing rights of these residents,” Patrick Fitzgerald, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in a statement.

The government wants an court order that would prohibit the alleged discrimination and unspecified damages.