11th Circuit Says Public Housing Applicants Can Challenge Site Selection

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The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled in June that two women who sued Florida's Okaloosa County, the Housing Authority and the Department of Housing and Urban Development had standing to allege violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.

That court reversed the dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit stemming from the Fort Walton Beach Housing Authority's effort to build 50 public housing townhomes.

"We felt all along we had a legal claim against the county and the Housing Authority," said Kris Knab, executive director of Legal Services of North Florida. She filed the complaint on behalf of Angelique Jackson and Ethel Musgrove in U.S. District Court in Pensacola in May 1992.

Public housing officials had been waiting since October for the appeal court's decision. The case will return to Judge Roger Vinson in Pensacola, who dismissed the complaint in August 1992.

The Housing Authority has been trying to build the townhomes for six years. HUD approved a $25 million grant in 1988 and extended the construction deadline three times since then. The current deadline is September 1995.

At the time the lawsuit was filed, Jackson was on a waiting list to move into public housing and Musgrove was a resident of the Housing Authority's Germany Terrace complex, according to the Okaloosa Daily News.

They alleged that the Okaloosa County commission's 1990 policy for locating public housing was discriminatory and that the Housing Authority acquiesced to it when considering offers to build the townhomes.

The county's policy requires that public housing sites be approved by commissioners or by voters in the precinct where the housing is proposed. Those requirements killed a 1991 proposal to build the units on Union Street in Wright, and thus disqualified the site from the Housing Authority's list of potential locations.

Maintained pattern of segregation

Okaloosa County's population is 88 percent white and 8 percent African-American. All of its public housing is located in a census tract that is 38 percent African-American. Ninety-two percent of public housing tenants are African-American.

The agency in 1992 chose a site near the corner of Third Street and Shell Avenue in Fort Walton Beach, near Germany Terrace. Because that area has the highest percentage of blacks within the agency's jurisdiction and 86 percent of the people on the waiting list were black, the women claimed the county and Housing Authority maintained a pattern of segregated public housing. HUD eventually rejected the Third Street site for similar reasons.

In reviewing Vinson's ruling, the appeal court said Jackson's and Musgrove's discrimination claims were specific enough to overturn the dismissal.

[Musgrove v. Okaloosa Cty., No. 92-2991,1994 US. App. LEXIS 14291 (CA-11 6-8-94)]

Counsel: Kristine Knab, Legal Services of North Florida, Inc., Tallahassee (Jackson); Patricia Guilday, Pensacola (County)