Town of Tarboro, NC settles race and family case for $95,500 and removal of restrictive zoning rules

Two years after filing a lawsuit alleging unfair housing practices, families and African American residents of Tarboro, North Carolina reached a settlement with the Town. The May $95,500 settlement resolves citizens’ fair housing lawsuit and lifts a ban on multifamily housing put in place after many of Tarboro’s African American citizens saw their homes destroyed by floods  brought on by Hurricane Floyd.

In the settlement, the Town of Tarboro agreed to restore all land that its zoning changes had removed from multifamily apartment construction and to reduce some costly requirements for setbacks, fencing, traffic studies and on-site management.

The settlement opens the door for the development of affordable multifamily housing in areas that had been restricted by the Town’s changes to its Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) following the Hurricane Floyd floods. The settlement also includes $21,000 to the North Carolina Fair Housing Center.

In September 1999, East Tarboro, primarily a low-income, African-American community, was flooded and devastated by Hurricane Floyd. With no alternative rental housing available, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) set up a temporary trailer park, the Keehlin FEMA Temporary Housing Site, in Tarboro to help house those who had lost their residences in the flood. Two developers approached the Town of Tarboro in late 1999 and early 2000 to seek permission to build affordable multifamily apartments, with funding from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency. However, at an emergency meeting of the Tarboro Town Council in March 2000, the Town adopted a moratorium on all multifamily construction. Then in May 2000, the UDO was amended to remove certain tracts of land from apartment construction and to impose substantial restrictions and
costly requirements to the remaining parcels of land where apartments could be built.

Rules virtually eliminated chances for minority residents displaced by floods from remaining

By halting multifamily construction in Tarboro, the Town Council effectively told the minority residents who lost their homes to floods that they could no longer live in the town. One developer dropped its plan to build in the town; the other developer, Pendergrant, Inc., saw its plans delayed for many months.

In April 2001, after contact with several East Tarboro residents, attorneys from Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) began to examine the zoning changes and the availability of land after the new UDO. “Simply put, those people who had lost their housing during the floods were locked out of Tarboro by the Town’s ordinances. We could not allow discriminatory and unfair ordinances to kick minority residents out of town,” said Hazel Mack-Hilliard, senior managing attorney for LANC’s Wilson Office. “In our view, it appeared that both the moratorium and the zoning ordinance were discriminatory and needed either to be modified or to be set aside, which the Town of Tarboro ultimately agreed to do as part of the settlement.”

“The North Carolina Fair Housing Center is extremely pleased with this result,” said Stella Adams, the agency’s executive director. “We hope that this will serve as a cautionary tale to other communities that would use their governmental powers to deny housing opportunities to people of color or families with children.”

Some of the plaintiffs expressed relief for the settlement and outrage for the actions of Town officials. Venessa Bradley said, “After the flood, houses were put up that I can not afford. I felt like my right to live in Tarboro was being taken away and I had to go live somewhere else.It wasn’t right. It was such a struggle and I just thank God it is all over.”

According to Curtis Ruffin, “Because (East Tarboro) is a black neighborhood and nothing but a black neighborhood they are trying to keep us from building it back up.” Linda Ruffin added, “They didn’t actually say they didn’t want black people living in Tarboro, but there were only black people living in Keehlin and those are the people they did not want back in Tarboro.”

For more information about the case, contact LANC’s Wilson office at (252) 291-6851.

Berry v. Town of Tarboro
Case No. 4:01-cv-140 (E.D. North Carolina)
The Honorable Malcolm J. Howard, U.S. District Judge
Federal complaint filed: September 21, 2001
Consent Decree and Final Order: April 28, 2003