City of Waukegan settles race/national origin case

The city of Waukegan, Illinois, whose officials were accused of violating the Fair HousingAct by enacting a housing code to limit the number of Hispanic family members livingtogether, has agreed to pay $200,000 in damages and fines under an agreement reached withthe Justice Department.

Under the agreement, approved on May 20 in U.S.District Court in Chicago, the city of Waukegan will stop restricting the number ofpersons living in a house based on the relation of the occupants. Previously, the city hadpermitted only a husband and wife, their children, and no more than two additionalrelatives to live in a house or apartment, regardless of its size. The Department ofJustice had alleged that this restriction was used as a means to discriminate againstHispanic residents.

City officials said they intended to prevent Hispanics from"taking over" Waukegan
The settlement resolves a suit filed by the Justice Department in August 1996. The suitasserted that city officials, who were aware that some Hispanic residents lived withextended families, engaged in discriminatory conduct by enacting the family-restrictiverule for the purpose of limiting the number of Hispanics in Waukegan. It stated that cityofficials repeatedly expressed their animosity toward the new Hispanic residents movinginto the city and said they intended to prevent the Hispanics from "taking over"Waukegan.

The Justice Department further alleged that, on numerous occasions, officials orderedHispanic families to vacate their homes, even though their homes were of sufficient sizeto accommodate the number of people who lived there. In fact, based on the records thecity provided to the Justice Department, the only families forced to vacate their homeswere Hispanic.

Under the settlement agreement, the city will:

  • no longer enforce the family-composition ordinance;
  • pay $175,000 in damages to the victims of the discriminatory policy;
  • train employees responsible for matters related to zoning and land use about the FairHousing Act's requirements;
  • hire a fair housing counselor who is fluent in both English and Spanish to handlehousing complaints;
  • hold regularly scheduled meetings to inform the public about housing opportunities inthe city as well as the city's health and safety standards for houses and apartments; and,
  • pay $25,000 in civil penalties to the U.S. government.

Isabelle Katz Pinzler, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for CivilRights, noted that the settlement does not in any way affect the city's ability to preventovercrowding of dwellings, since limitations on the total number of persons who may residein a dwelling based on its size are not at issue.

City enacted new zoning ordinances after experiencing a significantrise in Hispanic population
In June 1994, after experiencing a significant increase in its Hispanic population,Waukegan, which has a population of approximately 70,000, revised its housing code toinclude the new restrictive language. Before the provision was enacted, the city wasadvised that the new code may violate the Constitution and other federal laws because ofthe way it restricted who is allowed to live together. Shortly thereafter, and afterreceiving numerous complaints from Waukegan residents, the Justice Department beganinvestigating the city's housing policies and occupancy codes. Investigators foundevidence that Hispanic families were being singled out.

"Hispanic families deserve a place to call home just like everyone else,"said James B. Burns, the U.S. Attorney in Chicago. Burns, who worked on the case, saidthat Waukegan's officials should have known better. "The Supreme Court has alreadysaid that similar restrictions on the types of family members who can live togetherviolate the Constitution," he said.

"Individuals should not be prohibited from living together just because they arerelated to one another," said Pinzler. "If overcrowding is the problem, the lawallows limiting the number of people living together, not the type of people."