“It’s unfortunate that your organization was in the newspaper today.” The words came to me over the telephone from a prominent funder that supports non-profits in Delaware. The call had been scheduled weeks earlier. As luck would have it, an article entitled “Diamond State CLT Takes Legal Action Against Sussex County” appeared in state newspapers that morning. My heart sank. The call was my best chance to persuade the funder that the community land trust was worthy of a substantial grant to bring more permanently affordable housing to low-income Delawareans.
Diamond State CLT's board of directors and I had thought long and hard about what to do when, in the summer of 2010, Sussex County Planning & Zoning and the County Council denied our application for New Horizons, a 50-unit affordable homeownership development. New Horizons met the zoning code. We weren’t asking for any favors. We were just trying to help hard-working low-income families have a place of their own.
A Place for Everyone?
From 2000 to 2008, new rural subdivisions were popping up like popcorn in southern Delaware. Middle- and upper-income families were flocking to Delaware for a good deal and very low taxes. Many were retirees from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the D.C. area.
Also during this time, a group of mostly Latino, low-income workers already living in Delaware came together over the issues of health-threatening raw sewage and a nitrate-contaminated well at the Dogwood Mobile Home Park, where they lived. After one of the tenants complained to the environmental commission, the whole group received eviction notices. The tenants formed a cooperative with the help of the Delaware Housing Coalition and offered to buy the property, but were refused by the owner who insisted they had to leave.
The families dispersed to live separately but they stayed connected as a group to keep their vision of a community alive—a community of quality affordable homes and some land for cooperative agriculture. They called their vision the New Horizons Community.
About that time Diamond State Community Land Trust (DSCLT) was formed to develop and steward permanently affordable housing across the state, especially in Sussex County where the affordability gaps were the largest.
I was the start-up director and pleased to have this ready-made opportunity: a cooperative group of families looking for a good community. In 2005, the search for land began. Two dozen sites were analyzed by a team from the cooperative and the land trust. We selected a site, created development plans, and examined soil analysis, and environmental and historical aspects. At the end of 2008 the project was submitted to Planning & Zoning Commission for review.
Things Go Wrong
For almost two years we pushed and prodded the county to expedite the review so we could get the project started. By this time the foreclosure crisis and economic downturn was upon the country and the flood of new subdivision requests had stopped. We conservatively estimated that New Horizons would create about 225 jobs, about 75 jobs per year for three years running.
About a month before the Planning & Zoning public hearing I sensed that something serious was amiss. Communications from the county ceased. Cooperation on an unrelated NSP project suddenly became contentious. The evening of the public hearing the council chamber was full to overflowing. Our land use attorney, who had been shepherding subdivisions through the county process for years, told me he’d never seen a council gathering that large. The opposition had organized and packed the room. The testimony went almost to midnight and can be succinctly summarized as—N.I.M.B.Y. We were denied.
After the denials, DSCLT considered the implications of pursuing the matter further. There were serious concerns that the organization would lose financial support. But the board decided on principle that all families, regardless of income, had the right to housing of their choice. Sussex had exceeded its authority and was blocking our mission.
In November 2010, DSCLT filed simultaneous legal actions: a land use law suit in Superior Court and a fair housing complaint with the state and the Philadelphia HUD office, alleging that the denials were based largely on the fact that Latino and African American families would be living in the new development.
The next two years were quite burdensome. Financial support and cooperation declined. The organization was forced to focus its resources on managing the legal appeals instead of increasing its statewide inventory of affordable housing.
But we prevailed. On November 28, 2012, the United States Department of Justice announced it had settled the lawsuit. From the DOJ's announcement:
The settlement, also filed today as a proposed consent decree that must be approved by the court, requires that the defendants reconsider the affordable housing proposal using nondiscriminatory criteria and take no actions to obstruct or delay the development of the subdivision. It also requires the county to pay $750,000 to Diamond State Community Land Trust in compensation for its damages.
In addition, the settlement requires that the county take affirmative steps to provide for future affordable housing, communicate its commitment to fair housing, and establish mechanisms to ensure affordable and fair housing in Sussex County.
I am so proud of the board, staff and supporters of Diamond State Community Land Trust for sticking by principle and bearing up under the considerable strain, to achieve this positive outcome on behalf of all citizens of Delaware including the future residents of the New Horizons Community.
You’ll have to come see it in a few years. It’s going to be a great place to live.
(All photos courtesy of Delaware Housing Coalition.)