The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Ashland Housing Authority (AHA) settled a Fair Housing Act (FHA) discrimination lawsuit on Tuesday.

The settlement requires, in part, the AHA to "deposit in an interest-bearing escrow account" $275,000 for the purpose of "compensating the 23 individuals identified by the United States in pretrial disclosures as aggrieved persons," according to the consent decree signed by Northern District of Alabama United States District Judge Annemarie Carney Axon.

AHA denies that they've "engaged in a pattern or practice of housing discrimination, or denied to a group of persons rights protected under the FHA, because of race or color" as alleged by the DOJ, according to the consent decree.

The lawsuit by the DOJ, filed in December 2020, alleged that since at least 2012, the AHA "maintained largely segregated housing and steered residents to different housing communities based on race." The DOJ also alleged the "defendants steered black applicants away from four overwhelmingly white communities (known as Ashland Heights I, Ashland Heights II, East Side, and Clay Circle) that are located in predominately white neighborhoods to two predominantly black communities (known as West Side and Pine View) that are located in predominately Black neighborhoods."

In investigating and litigating this case, the DOJ conducted "over 100 interviews with former and current tenants and other longtime residents of the Ashland area," and the "tenants and residents repeatedly highlighted the deep psychological stigma and harm suffered by hundreds of Black families who have lived in segregated housing for generations," according to the DOJ.

"The consent decree entered today ensures access to housing opportunities for individuals and families without fear of discrimination," said U.S. Attorney Prim F. Escalona for the Northern District of Alabama in a statement this week. "My office will continue to devote resources to vigorously pursue housing providers who deny equal housing opportunities to applicants or separate tenants based on their race."

A spokesperson for the Alabama Housing Authority said in an emailed statement to 1819 News on Friday that "after decades of serving the Ashland, Alabama community and providing healthy, safe, and sustainable  affordable housing to low-income residents, in late December of 2016, the United States Department of  Justice ("DOJ") initiated a Fair Housing discrimination investigation into Ashland Housing Authority ("AHA")." 

"Because AHA has never discriminated against any applicant or resident, AHA cooperated fully with the investigation and gave the DOJ full access to all AHA's files and employees," the AHA spokesperson said. "Four years later, after AHA repeatedly requested information about the status of the investigation, and one DOJ attorney stating they had no evidence of discrimination, the DOJ sued AHA and the owners of two properties AHA manages for race discrimination in housing. AHA denied, and continues to deny, all the allegations in the complaint and vigorously defended the lawsuit. However, after two years of  contentious and expensive litigation, AHA made the business decision to settle the claims with the DOJ to focus its financial and other resources on the residents and community it serves instead of continuing to  incur costs and expenses in connection with fighting the unlimited resources of the United States government."

To resolve the litigation, AHA was required to agree to a Consent Decree with injunctive relief that requires "AHA to do much of what it already does," according to the AHA. 

"AHA was also required to agree to establish a fund for 23 alleged aggrieved persons the DOJ identified (out of the thousands AHA has served over the decades)," the spokesperson for AHA said. "AHA and the other defendants were not required to admit any liability, and AHA was not required to pay any civil  penalties in connection with the settlement. AHA remains committed to its mission of providing affordable housing without regard to race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin and is an Equal Opportunity housing provider. AHA welcomes qualified individuals and families to apply for housing and looks forward to continuing to serve the Ashland community."

The Ashland Housing Authority manages eight low-income housing communities, according to the Department of Justice.

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