HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – A Detroit-area community that targeted blacks by demolishing poor neighborhoods is scrambling to come up with money to finally end the case — 44 years after a federal judge found clear evidence of discrimination.
The judge, Damon Keith, is now 93 years old and still overseeing what's considered the longest-running housing bias case in the U.S. But during a recent meeting in his office, he delivered another tough verdict: Finish this soon or another judge will take over.
"This thing can't go on. ... I'm not a quitter," Keith told lawyers around a conference table, "but I just get tired."
Hamtramck, a small city surrounded by Detroit, agreed to offer 200 family housing units, as well as 150 units for senior citizens, to make up for violating the civil rights of blacks whose neighborhoods were wiped out for urban renewal projects in the 1960s. That remedy wasn't settled until a decade after the 1971 trial. And construction still didn't start until years later, due to political opposition and a lack of money, among other obstacles.
Today, three houses still need to be developed, but a special fund doesn't hold enough cash to complete the job. As a result, at least $600,000 will be collected through Hamtramck's winter property tax bills, according to a July 24 order from the judge.
City officials appear to agree, saying there's no alternative because Hamtramck doesn't have any extra cash. Poor finances led Gov. Rick Snyder to appoint an emergency manager to run local government for nearly 18 months, and the city still is under some state oversight.
"The city certainly doesn't want to skirt its obligations. ... We simply don't have the resources," Hamtramck's attorney, John Clark, told Keith on July 21.
Separately, an audit of the housing fund, which was to receive taxes collected from certain areas of the city as well as from land sales, must be completed by early October. Keith agreed to stop earmarking the revenue in 2011, believing the fund had enough money to complete the project.
Attorney Michael Barnhart, who has represented discrimination victims or their relatives, has received roughly $900,000 in legal fees from the fund in the last four years, the city said.
That money "could have been used to finish the remaining three houses and finally bring an end to this litigation," Clark said in a May filing.
Barnhart did not return email and phone messages seeking comment. But in a court filing, he noted the "complex and difficult" work of dealing with state and local agencies that have tried to help meet the housing goal.
There have been occasions where the finish line seemed in sight, especially Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2010, when the judge and others publicly celebrated as a new home was given to a woman whose family was forced out decades earlier because they were black. There were predictions that the remaining 100 houses would be completed by 2011.
Keith, who still oversees the case despite being promoted to appeals court judge in 1977, told the parties to give him another update on Oct. 27.
"We'll give you one more date," the judge said. "Hopefully you'll resolve this matter."
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