‘We’re their last hope’: Legal Services of North Florida files Fair Housing Act complaint on behalf of residents of Orange Avenue Apartments
The Tallahassee Housing Authority has mismanaged the relocation of hundreds of families from a South City apartment complex slated to be torn down and redeveloped, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the tenants.
The Orange Avenue United Tenants’ Association alleged in the lawsuit that the housing authority violated the Fair Housing Act by circumventing promises made in a redevelopment master plan for Orange Avenue Apartments.
The complaint says the THA’s plans “will displace its heavily Black tenant population into more racially segregated neighborhoods with fewer economic and social opportunities and replace the Orange Avenue Apartments with new, more expensive housing that will be less available to Tallahassee’s poorer Black residents, thereby exacerbating Tallahassee’s long history of residential segregation and causing exactly the kind of racially discriminatory result that the Fair Housing Act prohibits.”
The complaint was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee by Legal Services of North Florida, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of Washington, D.C., and the Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton law firm of New York City.
In the complaint, the plaintiffs, Elizabeth Gabriel, Oliver Hill and the Orange Avenue United Tenants’ Association (OAUTA), asked for a preliminary injunction to pause the relocation of Orange Avenue tenants and any further demolition of apartment buildings.
The plaintiffs also ask the defendant to revise the redevelopment plan so it does not forcefully displace and further segregate the Black community in Leon County. These requests include comparable apartments to the ones demolished, accommodations for those with disabilities and compensatory damages.
“We’re filing this complaint because residents have tried everything to work with Tallahassee Housing Authority, and we’re their last hope,” Scott Manion, director of litigation for Legal Services of North Florida, told the Tallahassee Democrat in an email.
“They feel like THA has failed to provide them appropriate housing, and it’s our job to give them the security of a voice. Through us, these residents are asking a federal judge to block this redevelopment plan, which further segregates and hurts Black residents and consequently violates federal law.”
Brenda Williams, the executive director of THA, told the Democrat she was not able to comment on pending litigation.
The complaint: ‘leaving residents in the dark’
The complaint states the demolition of the 200-unit South City apartment complex was planned without a way to provide tenants with comparable housing.
Orange Avenue made up 37% of the city’s affordable housing and 97% of its residents were Black, the complaint said.
Orange Avenue residents were given vouchers, the complaint states, “despite its knowledge that only a small number of Tallahassee landlords accept HCVs, that the small number of Tallahassee landlords accepting HCVs provide inferior housing that is situated in far more segregated neighborhoods with less accessibility to schools and fewer other basic amenities than plaintiffs currently have in South City.”
HCV stands for housing choice voucher, a subsidy that is paid to private landlords directly from a public housing agency.
The complaint also states that if residents lose their voucher while the development is being built, they will lose their right to return to the new housing complex. The complaint explains that there are fewer protections against eviction for those with a voucher compared with a tenant who has a public housing unit.
Other residents who have opted to stay in public housing are limited to the two other public housing complexes in the city, Springfield Apartments and Pinewood Place, which are already experiencing long waitlists and are not as safe as Orange Avenue, the complaint states.
Plaintiffs are also alleging the housing authority has not been transparent about the master plan.
“THA’s inconsistent treatment of Orange Avenue Apartment residents and its campaign of misinformation around HCVs has sown confusion among residents, frustrating (tenant association) efforts to advocate on its residents’ behalf, and leaving residents in the dark…,” the complaint states.
Tenants were originally told they would be able to move back to the new Orange Avenue apartments after they were built.
In THA’s Orange Avenue Corridor and Orange Ave. Apartments Transformation Plan, THA said one of its goals was “To Ensure at Least one-to-one replacement of existing housing with the neighborhood while providing housing choices – we seek to make the Orange Avenue corridor a housing destination in the future!”
But the new development would be “Purpose-Built” housing, which, according to the complaint, has a history of displacing public housing residents.
“The Purpose Built framework was inaccurately identified as a model that has sought to embrace, rather than to change, the communities it redevelops. Moreover, it was falsely heralded as a model where returning residents would not be priced out of the market upon the completion of the new developments,” the complaint states.
One of the plaintiffs, the Orange Avenue Tenants Association, alleges THA silenced the association by blocking representatives from reaching out to residents and withholding funds from the association since 2018 because it has been critical of the redevelopment.
Both Hill and Gabriel, the other two plaintiffs, are association leaders.
History of the Tallahassee Housing Authority, road to demolition
THA owns and oversees multiple apartment complexes – Springfield, Griffin Heights, Pinewood Place and Orange Avenue Apartments.
The authority’s portfolio includes 542 units and 2,416 privately-owned units that are part of the housing choice voucher program, according to figures in a late-February city and county workshop on affordable housing.
Established in 1946 by the state, the authority is governed by a seven-person board of commissioners appointed by the Tallahassee City Commission.
The agency provides, according to its website, “quality affordable housing for low-to moderate-income households, fosters sustainable communities, and cultivates opportunities for residents to improve their lives in collaboration with local supportive services.”
In a 2016 physical needs assessment by THA, the agency determined the Orange Avenue Apartments – located in a 100-year flood zone – were in need of rebuilding.
Later the same year, THA partnered with Columbia Residential, an Atlanta-based developer, to create a proposal for redevelopment.
In 2017, THA and representatives from Columbia Residential held meetings with local residents, the city, county and the school board “ that ultimately had great influence over the final plan,” according to the master plan.
By February 2018, the authority completed and published its 114-page master plan. The final plan was approved by the city and county in August of 2020 and was later approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The demolition is scheduled to wrap up next month, according to the complaint.