The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice informed the Jefferson County Attorney’s office last week that it had initiated an investigation into potential race-based discrimination by Louisville Metro Council.
The investigation will determine if the council’s vote last year to block an affordable housing development for seniors in Prospect was in violation of the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race and other protected classes in zoning decisions.
In a letter sent to Metro Council members on Monday, Jefferson County Attorney Mike O’Connell informed them that the investigation was underway and strongly advised that they fully comply with DOJ requests for documents and correspondence related to the vote and development, though noting that the council would have to rely on outside counsel.
The development in question was Prospect Cove, a proposed 198-unit, four-story affordable senior housing facility to go into the east end community. Though the Planning Commission had voted unanimously to rezone the property so developers could go forward with the project, Metro Council voted last October by a narrow 14-11 majority to reject this rezoning and kill the Prospect Cove development.
The letter signed by the chief of the Housing & Civil Enforcement Section of the federal agency was received by O’Connell last Tuesday, indicating that the investigation was preliminary and the agency had not reached any conclusion, but did request a broad range of documents and information related to Prospect Cove.
Metro Council was requested to maintain “all records, documents, files, correspondence, audio and video records, and electronically stored information related to the ordinance and development since the beginning of 2016.
According to O’Connell, Metro Council now has until March 14 to issue its response, telling council members in his letter that “this is a very important matter which demands your full attention,” as “a document tender to the Department of Justice is not to be taken lightly.”
O’Connell informed the members that his office “does not represent Louisville Metro Council in this particular matter for a variety of reasons” and that “outside counsel has been retained for you and he is included in this letter.” That outside attorney is John Hanley Jr. of Valenti Hanley PLLC.
The proposed Prospect Cove development was controversial, as many residents in the relatively affluent Prospect area spoke against it at public meetings, arguing that it was too large or did not fit the aesthetics of the city.
During the debate over the ordinance to block the development in October, several Metro Council members stated that affordable housing needed to be spread throughout the city, not just be clustered in the largely African-American West End of Louisville. Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton, D-5, called the opposition modern-day redlining, saying that they were trying to keep those in need of affordable housing out of their community.
While all nine Republicans on Metro Council voted to block Prospect Cove, they were also joined by Democrats Barbara Shanklin, David James, Cindi Fowler, David Yates and Brent Ackerson. There were 11 Democrats who voted against the ordinance that sought to block the development’s rezoning.
In his newsletter following the vote, Councilman Bill Hollander, D-9, called it “the most disappointing vote in my three years on Metro Council,” as “Louisville deserves better.”
“When you hear repeated references to ‘these people’ when expressing opposition to an affordable housing plan, it’s not hard to conclude that the opposition is not about a building but the people who would live there,” wrote Hollander, who added, “I’ll keep working for a day when everyone has a safe, decent and affordable place to live, everywhere in Louisville.”
Metro Council President David James told IL in a statement that the council welcomes the civil rights investigation from the DOJ, adding that “I have no reason to believe that any Council Members voted with the intent to deny anyone their civil rights. Our debate and subsequent vote was to insure Louisville moves forward with Affordable Housing in a good and positive direction throughout our City.”
In a statement to IL, Mayor Greg Fischer’s spokeswoman Jen Porter stated that the mayor “disagreed with the Metro Council vote on Prospect Cove, and supported the Planning Commission’s unanimous decision of approval for the project. He has said that meeting the most basic needs of our community’s most valuable asset — its people — requires that we strive to provide fair and affordable housing choices for all people in our community and in every neighborhood throughout Louisville Metro.”
Republican caucus director Steve Haag referred IL to the council’s outside attorney Hanley, who did not reply to an email and voicemail seeking comment on the investigation.
As for the “variety of reasons” that O’Connell could not represent Metro Council in this matter, spokesman Josh Abner would only tell IL that there are “multiple conflicts of interests” related to the ordinance and a lawsuit filed last year by the Prospect Cove developers against Metro Council.
The Prospect Cove developers, LDG Multifamily LLC, filed that lawsuit against Metro Council last fall, claiming that the ordinance blocking it was discriminatory. The company issued a statement Tuesday that it believes “everyone deserves a quality place to live and remains committed to providing high quality affordable housing options to families and seniors throughout the seven states in which we operate. The Prospect Cove development helps address a well documented need within our community by providing seniors on fixed incomes affordable housing options on in the East End. We look forward to continuing to pursue this goal.”
This story has been updated.