LSO and Partners Fight Housing Segregation in Hartford

Housing Clinic member Shana Hurley ’21 spoke at a press conference on November 18, 2020. Students in the Clinic are challenging federal and local government decisions and failures that caused the perpetuation of segregation in the North End of Hartford.

The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization (LSO) at Yale Law School and several partner organizations filed a lawsuit on November 18, 2020 challenging government decisions and failures that caused the perpetuation of segregation in the North End of Hartford, Conn.

The groups brought the lawsuit on behalf of the Center for Leadership and Justice (CLJ) and numerous individual plaintiffs representing broader classes of residents against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Housing Authority of the City of Hartford, the City of Hartford, and Imagineers, LLC.

LSO filed the lawsuit in partnership with Open Communities Alliance (OCA), the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Covington & Burling LLP.

The case stems from the failed relocation of families from three federally subsidized properties in high poverty, segregated neighborhoods in the North End of Hartford — Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments, Barbour Gardens Apartments, and Infill I — and HUD’s decision to re-subsidize many of the units in these properties rather than subsidizing housing in higher-opportunity areas.

For years, HUD subsidized each of these privately-owned buildings despite inhumane vermin and mold infestations, failed safety inspections, and unsafe conditions in the neighborhood, according to the filing. In 2018 and 2019, with the support of CLJ, the residents of these buildings lobbied HUD to terminate its contracts with the owners. Following months of advocacy, HUD terminated those contracts and provided the occupants with Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers that they theoretically could have used to move anywhere in the country.

The residents perceived this as a turning point in their lives, according to the plaintiffs. Many hoped to move out of Hartford to areas with high-resourced schools and less gun violence. But rather than implementing a relocation strategy designed to offer families choices in where they moved — including options in higher-opportunity areas — HUD and the other defendants prioritized relocating people quickly, according to the lawsuit.

At a press conference, Housing Clinic member Shana Hurley ’21 spoke about the impact of housing segregation on children and education. “Children raised in communities with concentrated poverty are less likely to graduate from high school, go on to college, and earn high incomes than children with similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds raised in higher-opportunity areas,” she said. “Research directly attributes those disparities to the concentrated poverty in racially isolated schools.”

Alexander Setzepfandt ’15, a former member of the Housing Clinic and now an associate at Covington & Burling, served as co-counsel on the case. Over a dozen Yale Law students have contributed to the case over five semesters and several summers.

“This is a case about a series of government decisions that inevitably led to segregation, following a long historical trend. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion — but a train wreck that has happened hundreds of times before and could have been avoided,” said Erin Boggs, Executive Director of OCA. “At virtually every decision point where the defendants could have chosen to make desegregation and true housing choice a real option for the families who were interested in accessing areas with strong schools and safe streets, they opted to disregard their duties under the Fair Housing Act.”

Among other failings, defendants did not use a proven tool called mobility counseling that is designed to help families move to higher-opportunity areas and counteract segregation, according to the lawsuit. As a result, the vast majority of families stayed in Hartford or moved to other low-opportunity, racially isolated areas. Defendants thereby perpetuated segregation and breached their legal duties to affirmatively further fair housing.

“This case has the potential to push HUD to change their practices, so that people who are relocated with Section 8 vouchers in the future will receive the full mobility counseling they are legally entitled to,” said Zoe Masters ’22, a student with the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization (LSO) at Yale Law School. “It gives me hope to think that, with this case as a precedent, HUD might do a better job in the future of fulfilling their mandate to actively ameliorate segregation.”

After relocating the former residents, HUD re-subsidized two of the three dilapidated buildings with Project Based Rental Assistance (PBRA) subsidies, the plaintiffs say. Because PBRA subsidies are “tied” to a specific building, residents cannot move without losing them. This type of subsidy is different from Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher subsidies that are “tied” to the voucher holder resident, allowing them to move more easily. In effect, by re-subsidizing these buildings with PBRA, HUD continues to lock families into housing in low-opportunity areas that they cannot afford to leave, according to the plaintiffs. This practice further entrenches subsidized housing in segregated areas with high poverty concentrations where most of the region’s subsidized housing is already located.

“It was inspiring to witness the organizing power built by the residents we worked with to address the failures of slumlords, HUD, and others,” said Cori Mackey, Executive Director of the Center for Leadership and Justice. “However, it was a demoralizing reality check to see the extent to which residents were stripped of choice as their desires to move to specific areas and neighborhoods in the region were systematically denied. This has to change.”

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal ’73 issued a statement on the lawsuit. “HUD has failed the people of the North End of Hartford despite continued insistence that the federal agency ensure the tenants of Barbour Gardens, Infill and CARA have fair and reasonable opportunity to housing choices throughout the Greater Hartford region,” Blumenthal said. “HUD also ignored their legal responsibility to break up pockets of poverty. They could have done the right thing, instead thumbed their noses at the law. I commend Open Communities Alliance and their partners in seeking legal redress. It should not have come to this.”

“Too often, people like our clients are mistreated by powerful actors who assume they can act with impunity,” said Ben Gerig Shelly ’21, another student from LSO. “Confronting that assumption, I believe, is the highest calling of the profession we students are soon to join.”

The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization (LSO) at Yale Law School provides legal representation to individuals and organizations in need of legal services but unable to afford private attorneys. The LSO Housing Clinic fights foreclosures, defends evictions, and brings fair housing civil rights cases combatting economic and racial segregation in Connecticut.