Addison, Illinois settles discrimination claims brought by Hispanic residents for $4.3 million

In what is being reported as the largest pretrial fair housing settlement ever, the cityof Addison, Illinois agreed to pay $4.3 million for allegedly trying to destroypredominantly Hispanic neighborhoods by declaring them blighted and bulldozing them forurban renewal.

The August 7 settlement includes $2.5 million in legal fees, $308,000for 44 families who were unfairly evicted from their homes, and $200,000 for 100 familieswho will displaced under a new urban renewal program. The remaining settlement money willgo toward the construction of two new parks and a community center. The money, accordingto the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities, "is secondary to what weachieved by way of equitable relief."

In 1994, Hispanic residents made up more than one-eighth of Addison's population of32,000. That year, Addison officials began giving the orders to tear down apartmentcomplexes and homes in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods. In all, eight buildings weretorn down and three more were condemned and boarded up. Despite plaintiffs' claims thatthe neighborhoods targeted for "suburban renewal" were "landscaped andwell-maintained," had not suffered from deterioration, and the fact that propertyvalues were actually going up, Addison's Board of Trustees declared the areas"blighted" and scheduled the demolition of buildings.

Addison's Hispanic residents said that the city was trying to force them out. With avacancy rate of only 2.7 percent throughout the city, they may have been right. More unitswere demolished or set to be demolished than were available to rent in Addison. If all theunits had been demolished under Addison's plan, more than half of the city's Hispanicresidents would have been forced to find new homes.

The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities assisted Addison's residentsin filing a federal fair housing complaint against the city. Aurie Pennick, president ofthe Council, said, "I believe Addison has learned a valuable lesson. Housingdiscrimination is illegal and won't be tolerated."

After the settlement was reached, some of Addison's Hispanic residents told reportersabout the struggle to find places to live on short notice and how children were frightenedto see bulldozers demolishing their homes. According to the lawsuit, the homes inAddison's Hispanic neighborhoods were up to code and that the neighborhoods themselves didnot deserve to be called blighted. Under the settlement, Addison has agreed to remove 80percent of the homes from its demolition list.

Larry Hartwig, Addison's mayor and a middle school principal, told a New York Timesreporter about the "two types of Hispanics in Addison." One type was "veryacculturated" and, if you didn't know their last names, "you wouldn't know theywere Hispanic." The other type, "the newer ones," stood out in Hartwig'smind. "I don't blame them. We need to educate them. As they come and migrate to ourcountry, they need to adapt and adopt our ways," he said.

Edward Voci, the Leadership Council's attorney, told the Sun-Times that Addisonis not the only town that is allegedly trying to oust Hispanics by using zoning laws andurban renewal. Similar problems have occurred in the Illinois cities of Cicero, Hodgkins,and Waukegan (see July 1997 Advocate for Waukegan article). Voci said that the townof Prospect Heights also had similar plans for urban renewal which included razing someHispanic neighborhoods. The town has since backed off of those plans, however.

Paul Hancock, Acting Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights, saw intentionaldiscrimination. He told the New York Times that the Justice Department wasconcerned that the city's intent "seemed to be to rid the village of Hispanics."He noted that many suburbs are currently facing an influx of Hispanic residents and thatthis settlement is important because it sends a message to other communities who might tryto use zoning and urban renewal as a means to weed out minority residents.

Despite what Hancock said, Voci said that the Department of Justice actually hinderedthe case. He said, "The plaintiffs would have obtained more settlement dollarshad we not been severely undercut by the DOJ. The Chicago HUD people were screaming forDOJ to file suit, months before Rita Gonzales came to the Leadership Council."

Voci continued, "DOJ failed to file suit for over a year, leaving the privateplaintiffs to carry the burden in bringing a halt to the bulldozing, assembling expertwitnesses, and expending large amounts in costs.

"The worst thing is that DOJ stood by as bulldozing created victims and thenundercut those victims in the settlement negotiations. DOJ even argued to limit theconsent decree to seven years instead of 23 years, the term eventually agreed to by thedefendants."

Rita Gonzales, the executive director of Hispanics United of DuPage County, was one ofthe residents who was forced out of her home. She said that city officials approached herand asked for help in relocating those forced to move. She told reporters that shepolitely declined. "It was very offensive," Gonzales said. "The reality isthe village attempted to eliminate the Hispanic communities. But we're here to stay."