Low-income apartment referendum: bias or democracy?

By THOMAS J. SHEERAN, Associated Press Writer

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio (AP) - Robert Evans considers the low-income complex where he lives a matter of economics and not a means to integrate this predominantly white Akron suburb.

"The apartments are set up nice," said Evans, 56, who pays just $500 a month for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment he shares with two daughters.

But what to Evans is a pleasant place to live is at the center of a racial discrimination lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the apartments' nonprofit builder accuses the city of discriminating against blacks by allowing a referendum that temporarily blocked construction. The referendum ultimately was overturned.

The Columbus-based Buckeye Community Hope Foundation says the referendum caused three years of delays in approving the $4.9 million, 72-unit apartment complex, delays that were costly and held up financing.

The case, being heard this month, provides an opportunity for the court to define how much evidence is needed to prove discrimination, said Jonathan Entin, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Black households make up a large percentage of the foundation's low-income housing projects. Just 2 percent of Cuyahoga Falls' 49,358 residents are black.

The justices are expected to rule by June on whether the foundation can sue the city for its handling of the referendum.

Entin said the court must decide if the city's actions had a clear discriminatory intent.

"The Supreme Court has taken a fairly strict approach to discriminatory intent. It doesn't require a 'smoking gun' but simply showing a disproportionate impact on minorities," Entin said.

Still, he said, "The court has said in a number of cases you can't make a claim of racial discrimination unless you can show there was a kind of intent to discriminate or purpose to discriminate."

Entin said a ruling in favor of the foundation would make it easier for plaintiffs to make claims of discrimination.

The foundation proposed the project in 1995. It was approved in 1996, but opponents waged a successful referendum fight to block construction.

The foundation says the referendum passed in part because of racially tinged comments by Mayor Don L. Robart, who is white.

During debate over the housing project, Robart said he opposed "boom boxers" in the city, said Edward G. Kramer, a Cleveland attorney representing the foundation.

City Law Director Virgil E. Arrington said the city neither endorsed nor opposed the referendum and did not discriminate against the foundation. He would not comment on the mayor's remark.

The Ohio Supreme Court reversed the referendum in 1998 and allowed construction.

In the meantime, the foundation had filed a $3 million lawsuit against the city, saying its constitutional rights of equal protection of the law, due process and fair housing were denied by what it calls a racially motivated referendum.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found some evidence of racial bias in the city's actions and ruled that the foundation could continue with its lawsuit. The city appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Ohio Municipal League sided with Cuyahoga Falls, saying the city should not be punished for bigoted comments by a few residents.

Even though the mayor originally opposed the apartment project, he allowed the ordinance to become law without his signature, withholding a possible veto, the league said.

Despite the controversy, Evans said he has not experienced any bigotry in Cuyahoga Falls.

"This is a pretty nice area," Evans said, glancing across trim lawns and fresh paint on the two-story, townhouse-style apartments.

"I can understand them not wanting to get lower-income developments here because lower income has a reputation that it drags things down," he said.

Evans said racial generalizations, even by a few outspoken opponents of the apartment complex, are unfair.

"Everyone who's minority is not ghetto," he said.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)