Rental policy called discriminatory; Black people ruled out, group charges

Calling the measure racially discriminatory, a New Orleans fair housing organization wants the St. Bernard Parish Council to repeal an ordinance that severely restricts a homeowner's rental policy.

The council approved an ordinance last week that prohibits some single-family residences from being rented to anyone who is not a blood relative of the owner. The ordinance applies to residences not already being rented and calls for fines of up to $250 for violators.

Supporters said such a drastic measure is needed to preserve the parish's long history of owner-occupied housing and to protect the integrity of subdivisions where homeowners have chosen to return. Nearly all the parish's housing stock was swamped in Hurricane Katrina, and ordinance supporters worry that investors will snatch up those houses cheaply and use them as rental property.

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Councilman Craig Taffaro, who authored the measure, was not available for comment. But Councilman Joey DiFatta said council members feared that without the restrictions much of the parish would become "a renter's community."

But the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center says the ordinance will have the effect of banning rentals to nonwhite tenants. Because the latest census data show the parish is almost 93 percent white, the blood-relative clause will restrict most rentals to white tenants, the group said.

James Perry, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, said the council's intent doesn't matter.

"I hope they have great intent," he said. "But the test is not intent. The test is effect."

And the effect, Perry said, is that the ordinance violates the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in the rental or sale of a dwelling on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status or disability. Perry said the Fair Housing Act has been interpreted to prohibit municipalities from using zoning or regulatory power in a manner that excludes housing for certain groups of people.

"The Fair Housing Act is pretty clear and straightforward on the issue," he said.

Perry said his organization has received several calls in recent days from St. Bernard Parish property owners who fear the council's ordinance will prevent them from renting their houses. He said the organization could challenge the ordinance in court.

DiFatta said the group shouldn't expect the council to repeal the measure any time soon.

"Everyone I'm talking to in St. Bernard Parish is ecstatic about it," he said. "I think we did the right thing."

DiFatta emphasized that the ordinance does not try to restrict those homes being rented before Hurricane Katrina and said it is not meant to keep anyone from moving into the parish. He said he realizes the measure might spur litigation, but said the parish residents he has spoken with are happy that the council is trying to preserve the owner-occupied nature of parish housing stock.

Nonetheless, Councilman Tony "Ricky" Melerine said he thinks the ordinance might be tweaked in coming weeks. For instance, he said he would like to see it softened for people who want to rent a home on a lease-purchase plan. He said he has received several complaints from homeowners, all of whom live outside the parish, who want to lease their homes to people who eventually would buy them.

The council approved the ordinance Sept. 19 in a 5-2 vote. In opposing the measure, Councilmen Mark Madary and Lynn Dean said they didn't think it was legal for the parish to tell homeowners who they could rent to.

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Bob Warren can be reached at bwarren [at] timespicayune [dot] com or (504) 826-3363.