NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ Accusing officials in a suburban New Orleans parish of trying to keep blacks from moving there after Hurricane Katrina, a housing advocacy group is asking a federal judge to strike down a parish limit on the construction of new multifamily homes.
U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan heard testimony Wednesday in a case that has resurrected a dispute between St. Bernard Parish officials and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.
The center claims the parish's September 2008 moratorium on building structures with more than five units is an end run around an earlier court settlement over a different housing regulation.
Last year, the predominantly white parish agreed to repeal an ordinance that barred residents from renting single-family homes to anyone other than a blood relative.
The center claims both ordinances discriminate against blacks looking for affordable housing after the August 2005 storm demolished tens of thousands of homes in the New Orleans area.
"It's clear that people of color rely more heavily on rental housing than white folks,'' James Perry, the center's executive director, testified Wednesday. "(The new ordinance) makes it less likely that there will be housing opportunities for people of color in St. Bernard Parish.''
The center's attorneys are asking Berrigan to order the parish council to repeal the multifamily moratorium, but the judge said she wants to hear testimony before she rules.
Parish President Craig Taffaro said nobody in parish government has any "direct or indirect intent'' to violate fair housing laws.
"Our mission is to complete our recovery and make St. Bernard the best municipality it can be,'' he said during an interview outside the courtroom.
During a break in testimony, Ray Lauga, a member of St. Bernard Parish Council, said parish officials were determined to limit high-density developments that could jeopardize residents' health and safety.
"My reason for the moratorium is that we didn't repeat the same mistakes we made before,'' he said referring to Hurricane Katrina.
Matt Harris, a managing director of Provident Realty Advisors, Inc., said the new ordinance is blocking the firm from building 288 units of mixed-income housing in St. Bernard Parish.
Harris said parish officials had expressed concern about the "types of people'' who would be living on the properties.
"A lot of concern focused on the lower-income mix,'' he said.
Whites make up about 88 percent of the parish's population, while blacks account for about 7.6 percent, according to census figures cited by the center's lawyers.
Harris said blacks account for about half of the tenants at multifamily complexes that Provident built in other parts of southeastern Louisiana.
Francis Mulhall, a lawyer for the parish, said several black officials who represent eastern New Orleans have expressed support for banning new multifamily developments in that part of the city.
Mulhall asked Perry if he considered those elected officials to be "anti-black''?
"At least in this circumstance,'' Perry said.
"Have you sued those people?'' Mulhall asked.
"Not yet,'' Perry responded.
Kalima Rose, a public policy analyst, said she was astounded that the parish would block the housing project "because there are so many resources that have not moved quickly through FEMA and other channels.''
Testimony is scheduled to resume Thursday.