The D.C. government is seeking to dismiss a $1 billion lawsuit alleging that city officials discriminated against poor and working-class African American residents by crafting policies to promote the District as a mecca for young, affluent professionals.
In a motion filed late last month in U.S. District Court, lawyers argued that the lawsuit “failed to support any conspiracy claim” or provide evidence that D.C. land-use policies devised since the mid-2000s were intended to cause any group harm.
“Plaintiffs offer no factual support for their assertion that the District’s development policies disproportionately affect the access to housing for residents who are African-American,” the lawyers wrote in a motion submitted June 25.
Aristotle Theresa, the Anacostia-based attorney who filed the lawsuit in April, declined to respond to the government’s argument except to say that he is “confident in the merits of our claims.” Theresa is to submit his response to the District’s motion by July 16.
Like many cities across the country, the District has undergone a renaissance over the past generation as developers built or renovated housing in gentrifying areas that became magnets for young professionals.
As housing costs have soared across the District, poor, working-class and middle-class residents have struggled to retain their places in neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights, Petworth and Brookland.
In his lawsuit, Theresa argued that, beginning with the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), the District actively sought to attract what one urban theorist has labeled “the creative class,” a group that includes young entrepreneurs, tech developers and artists.
Theresa said residential towers that have risen across the city — filled with studio and one-bedroom apartments — catered to the newcomers and disregarded the needs of the poor and working-class families who have lived in the city for generations.
The lawsuit also contended that the District’s “New Communities” program — which converts public housing into mixed-income developments — was designed to break up long-established black communities.
“Classist, racist, and ageist” was how Theresa described District policies that city officials say are intended to “economically integrate” neighborhoods. The lawsuit said those policies “lead to widespread gentrification and displacement.”
Theresa filed the lawsuit on behalf of Paulette Matthews and Greta Fuller, residents of Southeast Washington, and Shanifinne Ball, who lives in Northeast Washington. Fuller is a civic leader in Anacostia, while Ball has opposed development at Union Market.
In their motion to dismiss the complaint, the District’s lawyers said the city “understands plaintiffs’ concerns about the changing natures of their communities and the challenges they and others face in securing the homes and neighborhoods they desire.”
The motion said the plaintiffs “lack standing” to bring this lawsuit because none are alleging that the District’s actions “have or will cause them to experience actual or imminent injury.”
“Plaintiffs essentially contend that the development policies result in high density development that might, one day, force them . . . to leave their neighborhoods,” the District argued in its motion. “In the absence of plaintiffs establishing they have experienced an injury, in fact, they cannot establish that the District caused them injury, or that the injury is redressable by a favorable court action.”
Instead of proving that the city conspired to help one group over another, Theresa’s complaint “is filled with bald assertions of discriminatory intent,” the motion said.
“In sum, the challenged programs are explicitly designed to improve the lives of all District residents.”
Theresa, a civil rights attorney, has in recent years opposed several redevelopment projects, such as one slated for the McMillan reservoir in Northwest and the Barry Farm public housing complex in Southeast.
He has requested that the D.C. Court of Appeals overturn city approvals of more than a dozen projects. In two cases he was successful, delaying the projects by forcing D.C. officials to undertake an additional review.