HAMTRAMCK, Mich. – More than 40 years after her family was forced from their home because they were black, Sallie Sanders received the keys to a new house built to settle one of the longest-running cases of housing discrimination in the United States.
“My parents would be ecstatic that their offspring would be able to enjoy the things they couldn’t,” the 60-year-old Sanders said Monday before a ceremony to celebrate the milestone on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
Hamtramck agreed in 1980 to develop 200 family housing units to make up for violating the civil rights of blacks whose neighborhoods were targeted by white officials to make way for urban renewal projects in the 1960s.
Hamtramck still hasn’t met that goal, although officials predict it will by next year. The city of 23,000 is now extremely diverse, with immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and Bangladesh passing by a statue of Pope John Paul II in the historically Polish community.
“Everyone here practices their culture without fear or hesitation,” said Shahab Ahmed, one of three Muslims on the city council.
The 2000 census found 41 percent of residents were born in another country.
“If you talk to anyone in Hamtramck,” Mayor Karen Majewski said, “the first thing they’ll tell you is we welcome everybody.”
That wasn’t always true. In 1971, after a three-week trial, a federal judge said Hamtramck had a clear strategy when it demolished housing in poor neighborhoods. Blacks were 14.5 percent of Hamtramck’s population in 1960, but only 8.5 percent six years later, noted Damon Keith, now a judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
It took until 1980 for all sides to agree to a solution: Two hundred family housing units, as well as 150 units for senior citizens, would be offered at below-market rates to black plaintiffs in the lawsuit. It didn’t take long to build the senior housing, but construction on the rest didn’t start until 2004.
“Attitudes, funds and skills were the three missing ingredients,” said Michael Barnhart, attorney for the victims. “The city was still fighting it. Secondly, they didn’t have the money. Hamtramck was in and out of state receivership.”
The city’s current lawyer, James Allen Sr., agreed.
“This litigation was used as a political wedge issue. The us-versus-them mentality kept people in political office,” he said.
That changed when Gary Zych became mayor in the late 1990s. He said resolving the discrimination case was a moral issue as well as a practical one. Hamtramck couldn’t develop vacant land for other purposes until it built the subsidized housing.
Half of the 200 units have been completed, and the rest could be finished by 2011. The homes are a mix of new construction and renovated units to be sold or rented, Barnhart said. The federal government, state of Michigan and Wayne County are helping Hamtramck with money or properties.
“This could be the oldest living discrimination case that involves housing,” said Florence Roisman, an expert at Indiana University law school in Indianapolis.
Since many of the 500 plaintiffs in the lawsuit have died or moved away from the Detroit area, the housing has been offered to their children or grandchildren. If they aren’t interested, units will be offered to others.
Sanders, a retired state employee, said there was a “lot of sadness and turmoil” when her family had to move into Hamtramck’s public housing. Their former home, a rental, was razed when she was a teenager.
After living in Detroit as an adult, she returned to rent in Hamtramck a few years ago. Now, Sanders and four children are moving into a $164,000 four-bedroom house. Subsidies from the city and county dropped the price to about $100,000.
“I’m glad to be back,” she said.
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