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Arkansas town settles suit over attempt to ban cheap mobile homes

by Linda Satter | November 29, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

A settlement reached Tuesday ends a federal lawsuit brought by a national civil-rights organization against McCrory over the Woodruff County town's ill-fated ordinance to ban mobile homes worth less than $7,500.

"This first-of-its-kind federal lawsuit challenged as unconstitutional McCrory's policy of banishing residents simply because they were too poor to afford a more expensive home," the Washington, D.C., based group, Equal Justice Under the Law, said in a news release announcing the settlement.

Mike Mosley, an Arkansas Municipal League attorney who represented the town of about 1,700 people, said he had no comment on the settlement.

The civil-rights group sued the city and its police chief, Paul Hatch, in January, on behalf of residents David Watlington and Lindsey Hollaway, an engaged couple who had recently moved to the town in their mobile home, which was worth an estimated $1,500, from the neighboring town of Morton.

Less than 10 days after the Sept. 6, 2016, move, the McCrory City Council passed Ordinance No. 306, which said, "No trailer shall be put in the city ... unless it has a value established by a certified appraiser or a bill of sale of not less than $7,500. The owner is responsible for any cost to obtain these documents."

The ordinance imposed a fine of between $50 and $500 a day as long as the violation existed.

The couple said the police chief told them Dec. 7 that they would have to move "after the holidays" because their trailer didn't comply with the ordinance.

"It's not just unequal. It's just bizarre," Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under the Law, said at the time.

On Jan. 10, the council replaced Ordinance 306 with a new ordinance, 307, which removed the ban. In response, U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. canceled a temporary restraining order hearing he had set for Jan. 12.

Mosley soon filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the threat of harm had evaporated with the council's action. He also argued that Ordinance 306 had never been enforced against the couple, and hadn't prompted them to move, so there was no injury or wrong left to address.

But Equal Justice argued that because the city acted so swiftly in repealing the ordinance, the move could be seen as an attempt to evade review by a federal court, and the city could potentially enact a similar ordinance later. The attorneys also argued that the plaintiffs, who had an annual income of $13,000 -- below the poverty level -- had made some initial efforts to move and were due damages.

An amended complaint detailing the couple's claims for damages followed, as did a counterclaim in which the city said the couple's Poplar Avenue home constituted a nuisance and should be abated. The counterclaim -- which was later withdrawn -- cited a fire in the summer that was started by a generator being used because the mobile home lacks city utilities, the use of an old septic tank with an exposed sewer line, and an unmaintained lawn.

The lawsuit was still pending when the settlement agreement was reached Tuesday.

"This kind of wealth-based banishment scheme is unconscionable discrimination," Telfeyan said Tuesday. "McCrory, and all of our communities, should invest in residents rather than criminalize poverty."

The settlement totaled a little over $20,000, according to Stephanie Storey, communications officer for Equal Justice Under the Law. She said that includes a "monetary settlement" and the payment of the couple's attorneys' fees, and it requires the city to eliminate all fines it had assessed against Watlington.

"This settlement is a victory for Lindsey, David and impoverished people everywhere," Telfeyan said. "No one should fear being chased out of their hometown simply because they are too poor to afford a more expensive residence."

Equal Justice Under the Law is a five-member legal team that travels across the country to represent people for free in cases of what it calls wealth-based discrimination. The organization got involved in the McCrory case after receiving a letter the couple sent out in December to numerous groups in search of help.

Metro on 11/29/2017

Print Headline: McCrory settles suit over attempt to ban cheap mobile homes

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