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Miami Herald - 12/08/04 -

Town sued over housing plan

Southwest Ranches officials should provide affordable housing inside the town limits, not pay another town to build it for them, a lawsuit says.


Southwest Ranches leaders want to buy their way out of a state requirement that towns offer a place for affordable housing. But a federal lawsuit filed this week charges that this plan would perpetuate the segregation of poor black people.

State law requires cities and towns set aside land for affordable housing. But if that's not practical, the law allows deals whereby a neighboring community will assume the responsibility.

Southwest Ranches is proposing to do just that, and has tentatively agreed to pay $900,000 to Pembroke Park to help a developer build 168 apartments.

But the suit says that will violate the federal Fair Housing Act.

''The whole purpose behind the act was to diversify housing throughout the U.S. and to end housing discrimination,'' attorney Peter Loblack said. ``When we have a city like Southwest Ranches saying we do not want affordable housing in our area, it adversely affects housing for minorities.''

The suit names as defendants the towns of Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Park and the state of Florida. The plaintiff is Barrington Williams, a low-income black man. Williams, who lives in Tamarac, has been looking for other housing in Broward County.

But looking for an affordable home in Southwest Ranches would be a waste of time, Loblack says.

Southwest Ranches is a town of about 7,000 residents who live on lots at least an acre in size.

Homes in the town sell for between $200,000 and $1 million.

Southwest Ranches officials said their low-density development is designed to protect the town's rural lifestyle -- not to keep minorities out.

''We want to keep one area in this entire county where nurseries can exist, farms can exist, ranches can exist,'' Southwest Ranches Mayor Mecca Fink said.

In 2003, Southwest Ranches designated 30 acres for affordable housing but reversed that decision in response to protests from residents, the suit states.

Fink disagreed with the suit's claim that her town is a ''predominantly white enclave'' excluding blacks. In the 2000 Census, about 25 percent of the town's residents were minorities -- mostly Hispanic and about 3 percent black -- city officials said.

''We are probably more culturally diverse than most areas in Broward County and we love it,'' Fink said. ``At parties, everyone brings cultural dishes: the Haitian jerky, Hispanic beans and rice and Italian lasagna.''

Don Bowen, president of the Urban League of Broward County, said cities shouldn't be allowed to transfer their affordable housing elsewhere.

''It sets a dangerous precedent and obviously it could lead to more residential segregation,'' he said. ``If everybody adopts that attitude, where are we going to put people?''

But by helping pay for affordable housing in the region, the town's actions are ''technically defendable,'' said Jerry Kolo, professor of urban affairs at Florida Atlantic University.

Loblack, a black attorney from Hollywood, focuses on civil rights and public health law. Frustrated that no one was challenging Southwest Ranches, he decided to file the suit pro bono.

The suit asks the court to stop the proposed deal between Southwest Ranches and Pembroke Park and require all communities to provide affordable housing.