After a decade of legal battles in state and federal courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in Philadelphia on Tuesday that the remaining residents have a right to argue that they are being pushed out and that their removal will upset the racial balance in the town.
The residents say they want to stay but cannot because their homes will be replaced by higher-priced housing they cannot afford. Meanwhile, they say, they are living in deplorable conditions as the bulldozing of adjoining rowhouses creates leaks in their walls and cracks in their roofs.
"You know Beirut? That's what it's like living in my house," said Santos Cruz, who with his wife bought a home in the Gardens 20 years ago. "It's like living through an earthquake every day. . . . We used to be connected to eight or 10 homes. Now we stand all by ourselves."
The court reversed a decision by U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman, who dismissed the residents' claims on summary judgment in January, saying the case did not warrant a trial. He said the town had not discriminated against the residents and had a right to proceed with its plans to remove blight.
The residents say the money that the town is offering for their homes is not sufficient for them to buy other housing.
The case is being remanded to Hillman for trial in Camden.
In its 27-page decision, the appeals court wrote that the residents deserved to be heard. "The residents argue that the redevelopers . . . provided inadequate relocation assistance and allowed residents to be improperly pressured to leave, and that the redevelopment plan essentially pushes minority residents out of Mount Holly," the court said.
Though the township has discretion to remove blight and launch redevelopment projects, it "is bounded by laws like the FHA [Fair Housing Act] and by the Constitution, which prevent policies that discriminate on the basis of race," the court said.
The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief, saying the judge had erred in his interpretation of the discriminatory effect that the project could have on minorities in the area.
The department argued that the judge disregarded a statistical analysis that showed there was "a shortage of low-income housing in the township and its immediate surroundings" and that the project would displace minorities. If the ruling remained in effect, the department said, it would be difficult for the agency to enforce fair-housing laws.
The appeals court found that the township did not intentionally discriminate against the Gardens residents, but that it might have failed to consider the effect the project would have on minorities.
Olga Pomar, a South Jersey Legal Services lawyer who filed the lawsuit and who represented 20 of the families still in the neighborhood, said the Third Circuit ruling "provides a road map" to show townships how to handle a redevelopment project fairly.
"I'm very happy for my clients who have hung in there. We've been litigating this for years, and it's gratifying to see the court sees our claims as meritorious," she said.
Cruz, a truck driver who joined the lawsuit, said: "I bought my house there because I want to live there. This is America, and we are fighting to stay in the house we chose to live in."
Lawyer Jim Maley Jr., who represents the town, did not return calls for comment. Maley is also the mayor of Collingswood, where a troubled redevelopment project recently led Moody's to lower the borough's credit rating.
Mount Holly Deputy Mayor Tom Gibson said officials would meet with Maley to decide whether to appeal.
"The township needs to finish this development process," Gibson said. "We will need to continue down the road and make this project a successful one."
So far, the township has demolished more than 250 of the rowhouses, which were built in the 1950s. It is hoping to get final approval from the county planning board to put in a new traffic light so the developer can begin constructing Phase I of the redevelopment project.
Contact staff writer Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or email@example.com.