Opposition to slightly denser housing as a cloak for racism

Avenue 6E Investments, LLC v. City of Yuma, No. 13-16159 (9th Cir. Mar. 25, 2016).

Yuma’s welcome only extends so far. (Credit: J. Stephen Conn / flickr.)

Yuma’s welcome only extends so far. (Credit: J. Stephen Conn / flickr.)

On the heels of Wednesday’s Second Circuit ruling, here’s another fair housing case. Like Wednesday’s ruling, this case arises from a municipality’s refusal to rezone land and allow denser development.

The municipality here is Yuma, which like most American cities is heavily segregated. The Latinos of Yuma—who make up about 50% of the city’s population—are concentrated in discrete sections of the city where nearly all of the available low- to moderate-income housing is located. Whites are concentrated elsewhere. 

As for the land that’s at issue in this case? You may not be surprised to learn it’s on the boundary of a majority-white neighborhood. 

The plaintiffs here are developers who say they’ve gotten a reputation for building moderately priced housing projects whose residents are mostly Latino. They bought some land in Yuma at the bottom of the housing market and decided that people probably wouldn’t be interested in a bunch of new McMansions. What was missing from Yuma was more affordable, higher-density housing, so the developers asked Yuma to rezone the land to allow 6,000-square-foot lots. (You read that right: a full 6,000 square feet.) Without the rezone, the minimum lot size would be 8,000 square feet.

The rest of the story is sadly predictable. Residents vehemently opposed the rezoning, saying that the new residents would commit crimes and bring down property values. One letter-writer claimed that households with incomes of less than $75,000 account for 91% of all crimes. “How many innocent victims,” the letter-writer asked, “will fall victim [sic] to a predator in this 91% demographic?” The Yuma City Council refused to rezone, so the developers brought this lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act and Equal Protection Clause. 

The district court dismissed most of the developers’ claims on the pleadings, and the rest of the claims on summary judgment. An ideologically diverse panel of the Ninth Circuit now reverses. Much like the Second Circuit, the Ninth Circuit notes that opposition to the rezoning was expressed in what a reasonable jury could interpret to be “racially tinged code words.”