Village settles in discrimination lawsuit: Verdict comes after rezoning request for housing project was denied

Published 12:10 am Thursday, February 7, 2019

By Jim Buice
For the Clemmons Courier

The Clemmons Village Council approved a Conciliation Agreement with Allegro Investment Properties LLC,  Sylvan Road Partners LLC and the N.C. Human Relations Commission in its Jan. 28 meeting as full and complete resolution of claims raised in NCHRC Case No.: 15 HO 1984.

That was the end result of a NCHRC determination on April 23, 2018, that “reasonable grounds exist to believe that unlawful discriminatory housing practices have occurred” regarding a written sworn administrative complaint filed by the Complainants (Allegro Investment Properties LLC and Sylvan Road Partners LLC) over The Retreat at Clemmons, a planned 80-unit affordable housing development in Clemmons, where a Special Use District Zoning Amendment was denied by the council in an April 13, 2015, meeting.

The item was a late addition to the agenda and received unanimous approval from the council without discussion in its most recent meeting. No further details were disclosed that night, but a copy of the agreement showed Clemmons paying $150,000 in the settlement along with council members being required to attend one Fair Housing training session each of the next three years. None of the current council members were part of the governing board in 2015.

After last week’s meeting, Mayor John Wait said in a statement that the Village “maintains that it did not unlawfully discriminate against Allegro Investment Properties LLC and Sylvan Road Partners LLC’s zoning request” and “remains committed to being a welcoming community.” Wait said that most of the $150,000 will be paid by the Village’s insurance company.

The Conciliation Agreement stated that the agreement does not constitute an admission by the Respondents (Village of Clemmons, Clemmons Village Council) of any violation of the State Fair Housing Act, Federal Fair Housing Act or any other local, state or federal laws, and that the Respondents affirm that their policies and practices concerning the zoning and planning of any real property developments are in compliance with the State Fair Housing Act and Federal Fair Housing Act free from any discrimination.

In the determination letter, the complaint alleged that the NCHRC has jurisdiction over the parties and that the Complainants have standing to file a complaint under the Fair Housing Acts based on race and/or national origin. In the Complainants’ allegations, they stated the proposed development rejected by the Respondents would have contained affordable housing units for individuals with incomes below 80 percent of the area median income.

It further stated that the Respondents’ actions had the intent and effect of preventing and discouraging the construction of new affordable housing in Clemmons for those individuals, followed by these statements:

“Upon information and belief, the proposed development of The Retreat at Clemmons would have been disproportionately occupied by African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.

“Respondents’ actions had the intent and the effect of discriminating against African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

In addition, the Complaints alleged that the denial prevented them from being eligible for 2015 federal low-income housing tax credits and a Workforce Housing Loan, and prevented them from building the 80-unit affordable housing development within Clemmons. The site of the property in question was 4320 Kinnamon Village Loop off of U.S. 158.

In the Respondents’ defenses in the determination letter, they asserted they have not discriminated against the Complainants in any way, including not considering the income/race of potential tenants likely to occupy the rental property. The Respondents further stated that the Clemmons Village Council denied the Complainants’ rezoning application because the development had inadequate access to public streets and for emergency vehicles.

Findings and conclusions in the determination letter included documents submitted by the Complainants with comments — from a transcript of the council meeting on April 13, 2015 — from council member Bill Lawry and P.J. Lofland, who was identified as a resident of Clemmons and spoke during a public hearing that evening as an opponent. Since that time, Lofland was elected to council in 2017.

During the meeting, one male council member stated, “These are going to be $500-a-month apartments, right?”

Lofland, in her comments cited in the determination letter, stated, “I am very concerned about what kind of housing you actually build. Lower income housing should not be what we should be encouraging or courting. I’m very concerned that this type of housing could increase our crime rate, require more police and services, which will undoubtedly lead to higher taxes for those of us that own property.”

In addition, Lofland stated, “But at $500 a month, it’s going to be people that, you know, it’s going to be lower income people. Not that they’re all criminals, of course they aren’t.”

After the public hearing was closed, councilman Lawry stated, in comments cited in the determination letter: “I’m not a proponent of telling an owner of land how they can develop it. I think the land people, landowners, should pretty much have the ability to develop whatever they want to develop. But I’m a little concerned about this particular property…. I guess that when you do a background check, would that disqualify somebody if they were going to be on Section 8? I guess that would be a question of one of the pros.”

Once this statement was made by Lawry, attorney Warren Kasper informed the councilman that he should not talk about the income levels of people living in multifamily housing.

Lawry then stated, “How can I rephrase that question to not get myself or the Village in trouble?”

The determination letter stated that the Respondents and non-decision makers made “questionable statements about crime and income levels” and “knew their questions and statements were questionable as shown by Councilman Lawry’s question.”

The Complainants further contended they must have at least minimally be qualified to receive the zoning amendment because the Village of Clemmons Planning Board had already recommended approval of the affordable housing development.

Next, the Respondents’ claim that the Complainant’s rezoning request was denied because the project had “inadequate” access to public streets and/or “inadequate” access for emergency vehicles was a pretext, the determination letter stated, adding that Clemmons has no rule that requires residential developments have secondary connectivity.

In addition, during the course of the investigation, it was revealed that the Clemmons Planning Board and Clemmons Village Council approved market-rate residential developments that had one public access road and one secondary access road for emergency vehicles, stating the only difference was the other projects were market-rate residential developments and the Complainants’ proposed project was for affordable housing.

The determination letter further stated that the Planning Board raised concerns about secondary connectivity with the Complainants during a March 17, 2015, meeting and that a transcript from a portion of that meeting showed that the Complainants agreed to three referenced conditions regarding the approval and development of the proposed apartment complex.

Also, the determination letter stated that, in contrast, the evidence showed that the Clemmons Village Council approved two multi-family market rate housing developments — Chamberlin Place and Clemmons Town Center Apartments — with similar secondary site access concerns as the Complainants’ proposed development.

Documents submitted by the Complainants included what was referred to as an “expert report” by Allan Parnell, who is research director at the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities (which specializes in demographic and policy analyses with a focus on community development, discrimination in housing policies, and issues of social equity, including analysis of disparities in access to public infrastructure), dated Jan. 26, 2017.

Parnell’s conclusion to his report in the determination letter stated: “Black and non-white households in the market area for The Retreat at Clemmons are significantly more likely to have incomes that qualify them to live in the proposed affordable apartments at The Retreat at Clemmons than white households” and that not approving the zoning change to allow construction of the apartments had a “significant, disproportionate effect on the affordable housing opportunities for black and non-white households relative to white households.”

The determination letter further stated: “Clearly, Respondents’ approval process was not based on a formula that promotes consistency, uniformity or dependability regarding adequate or inadequate access to public streets” and that the same criteria applied for approving zoning amendments.

The housing discrimination complaint was filed against the Village of Clemmons and Clemmons Village Council by Allegro Investment Properties LLC and Sylvan Road Partners LLC on Dec. 14, 2015, with the NCHRC, which commenced the investigation to determine if there were reasonable grounds that a discriminatory housing practice had occurred.

The Village was later asked by the NCHRC to prepare answers to a number of interrogatories and produce requested documents in early 2017 to enable the NCHRC to complete its investigation process, leading to the determination letter on April 23, 2018, and then the resulting conciliation agreement.