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New Jersey township council settles housing discrimination case

By Dave Warner

MOUNT HOLLY, New Jersey (Reuters) - The Mount Holly township council voted on Wednesday to settle a closely watched housing discrimination lawsuit, less than a month before scheduled arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on the case that could have limited claims.

The settlement, which has now been approved by the township and the citizen group that originally filed the lawsuit, marks the second time in two years that civil rights advocates and others have worked to keep a housing-discrimination case away from a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives.

Council members voted unanimously to conclude the case, which had been set for arguments before the nation's highest court on December 4.

"They will be able to sleep tonight and have good dreams," Angela Gonzalez, the executive director of a group representing Latino citizens, said of the residents of the neighborhood who had fought a redevelopment plan for a decade.

"It's a good day, a good day," Gonzalez said. "People are now going to realize their dream."

In June, the court agreed to consider whether Mount Holly's plan to demolish lower-income housing and replace it with new units, some available at market rates, violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act because it would be less affordable for minorities.

The township in court papers said the intent of the 2002 redevelopment plan was to clean up blight. The 30-acre (12-hectare) parcel of land, known as the Gardens, had been a problem for many years because of high crime rates, poor maintenance, heavy concentration of rental units, overcrowding, and building code violations, it said.

But the group Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action said the development plan was discriminatory and filed a lawsuit, which had been winding toward the Supreme Court for a decade.

Township solicitor George Saponaro said Mount Holly and the plaintiffs planned to file a joint motion to dismiss the case with the U.S. Supreme Court within a couple of days.

"This vote was about resolving this case after 10 years, bringing an end to it in a manner that helps all parties," Saponaro told a news conference.

The lawsuit had been closely watched because of its possible effect on other cases involving so-called "disparate impact" claims, which target seemingly neutral practices that have a discriminatory effect.

For decades, such claims have given lawyers representing minorities a route to attack policies that do not directly discriminate, but which have the effect of putting certain groups of people at a disadvantage. In the Mount Holly case, the higher costs of the Gardens units created a disadvantage, advocates said.

Insurance and banking interests have watched the case closely because of its possible effect on similar types of cases involving lending and insurance policies.

The Obama administration had asked the court not to take the Mount Holly case, just as it had asked the court not to take another housing discrimination case, which involved a dispute between landlords and the city of St. Paul, Minnesota.

The court agreed to hear the St. Paul case and the Obama administration and civil rights groups urged St. Paul to drop its appeal, which the city did in February 2012, just weeks before oral arguments were to take place before the high court.

(Reporting by Dave Warner; Editing by David Bailey and Lisa Shumaker)

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