Port Isabel wants discrimination lawsuit tossed

The city of Port Isabel has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it that alleges it discriminated against low-income Hispanic residents by not approving affordable housing.

The Cameron County Housing Authority and Community Housing & Economic Development Corporation sued the City of Port Isabel, its City Commission and its Planning and Zoning Commission in November 2017, alleging that city officials violated federal housing and civil rights laws by segregating “the City of Port Isabel by denying families and individuals the right to live in a particular neighborhood based on their national and familial status.”

The center of the conflict is the failed redevelopment of the Neptune Apartments, which became uninhabitable after Hurricane Dolly in 2008.

Port Isabel denies the allegation, and in a motion for summary judgment filed with the court in late March, it says the statute of limitations for the federal housing and civil rights violations allegations have expired.

Not only that, the city argues that the Cameron County Housing Authority and Community Housing & Economic Development Corporation failed to provide officials with a redevelopment plan consistent with the city’s zoning regulations.

“ The City’s only actions involved the enforcement of its zoning regulations through its police power, and the Plaintiffs’ proposed construction did not comply with those legally valid requirements,” the motion states.

The Neptune Apartments were originally built in 1942, before Port Isabel adopted zoning regulations, according to the motion, which states that the apartments were grandfathered in, but after being damaged in Dolly, the city considered them abandoned and that designation lapsed.

The Cameron County entities seeking to redevelop the Neptune Apartments received a grant from the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council to do so, but the county officials were unable to come up with a plan that met Port Isabel’s zoning requirements.

This is the basis of the county’s allegations.

The county’s Housing Authority and Community Housing & Economic Development Corporation allege in the litigation that millions of dollars in federal grant funding was lost because the city wouldn’t authorize necessary zoning changes and use permits for the Neptune Apartments because its tenants would be low-income and Hispanic.

As evidence, the county points to comments Anglo residents made during public meetings.

“During these meetings, the Anglo residents also displayed their true motives, espousing classic examples of camouflaged discriminatory comments, such as not wanting ‘those people’ to come back, because the neighborhood had been ‘cleaned up,’ and multi-family residents would bring ‘drugs and crime’ back to the neighborhood,” the lawsuit states.

Instead, members of the public said the development should be limited to an area called “Little Mexico,” which Port Isabel officials say in court documents does not exist.

“During the process, which ultimately resulted in Plaintiffs being denied the ability to receive the federal funds, or redevelop the Neptune Apartments, comments were made by members and public officials suggesting that affordable housing should be limited to the area known as ‘Little Mexico’,” according to the lawsuit.

The City of Port Isabel categorically denies the allegations and after the lawsuit was filed, City Manager Jared Hockema said the city will vigorously fight the allegations in court.

Since the filing, attorneys on both sides have deposed numerous officials and people involved with the development.