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Public housing agencies and the federal government are facing some tough legal foes: litigators from top-tier law firms who are working to protect the housing rights of the poor. In recent years, lawsuits challenging everything from public housing demolitions to alleged discriminatory housing practices have popped up across the country, many of them relying on the expertise of private lawyers armed with trial experience and a war chest of resources to litigate complex, time-consuming cases. Many law firms say housing rights have become a popular pro bono priority among lawyers, many of whom believe that property rights of minorities and the poor are increasingly being threatened on a number of fronts. Private attorneys note that what also makes public housing litigation attractive to private firms is the fact that the alleged wrongdoer in these cases is the government � not one of their clients � so there’s no conflict when pursuing fair-housing claims. Chicago-based Jenner & Block is serving as lead counsel in a class action against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Housing Authority of New Orleans on behalf of New Orleans public housing residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The lawsuit claims, among other things, that the government is demolishing buildings that are viable, an issue that has sparked intense protests and legal controversy in recent months. Anderson v. Jackson, No. 06-3298 (E.D. La.). In New York, four lawyers with Sullivan & Cromwell are assisting in a class action against the town of Smithtown, N.Y., alleging that Smithtown’s policy of giving residents preference for public housing vouchers discriminates against minorities, since the town is 93% white. Vargas v. Town of Smithtown, No. 2:2007cv05202 (E.D.N.Y.). In Georgia, New York-based Proskauer Rose recently helped minorities secure a settlement from a public housing authority accused of treating white tenants better than black tenants. “The federal government and state governments have massive numbers of lawyers, and we can help ensure a fair and more level playing field for some of these [housing] issues,” said Ross Bricker of Jenner & Block, who is handling the class action in New Orleans on behalf of displaced public housing tenants. “A lot of the litigation efforts were designed to protect the interest of the former public housing residents, rather than have HUD raze everything and say, ‘Good luck to all of you,’ ” Bricker said. That’s what Bricker claims is happening in New Orleans, where public interest lawyers, private lawyers and Loyola University New Orleans School of Law Professor William Quigley are currently fighting demolition efforts. “Our class was a group of people who went to the Superdome and were dispersed. They came back and were really stunned to see that there were bars on their doors and bars on their windows. They literally were not allowed to return,” Bricker said. U.S. Department of Justice attorneys who represent the government in housing lawsuits, and are defending the government in the New Orleans class action, declined to comment. ‘Warehouse’ stigma HUD officials denied claims that their public housing demolition efforts in Louisiana, as well as in cities across America, are hurting the poor. They said that part of HUD’s mission is to do away with the traditional barracks-style public housing units and replace them with single-family homes and townhouselike structures. “That’s in line with helping move public housing away from warehousing families to making them blend into the community,” said HUD spokeswoman Donna White. White disputed claims that HUD is demolishing buildings in New Orleans that don’t warrant destruction, arguing that the structures were badly damaged and uninhabitable. “We believe that HUD had to make a tough call when the hurricane happened . . . .The future will show that this was the right call, to tear down the old and build new,” said White, who believes that lawsuits challenging public housing initiatives delay progress. “You have a legal right to go through the courts, but one thing that it does is it delays necessary housing developments in communities.” Securities litigator Harold Hirshman of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal’s Chicago office, said he has witnessed just the opposite. This month, dozens of public housing residents in Chicago are scheduled to move into new single-family homes, upscale townhouses and midrise buildings as the result of a lengthy lawsuit alleging that the government allowed a housing project to deteriorate and effectively become demolished. Henry Horners Mothers Guild v. Chicago Housing Authority, No. 91 C 3316 (N.D. Ill). The 1991 lawsuit, in which Hirshman participated, sought to keep residents in their units until newer ones were built. The litigation proved successful, said Hirshman, who on the eve of trial helped secure a favorable settlement for homeowners, saving some structures from demolition and allowing residents to stay in their homes until better ones were built. “Often the only way to create some negotiating room is through litigation or the threat of litigation,” he said. William Wilen, the director of housing litigation at the Sargent Shriver National Center of Poverty Law in Chicago, which worked on the Chicago case, believes that Sonnenschein’s involvement was crucial. “Sonnenschein helped us and we were able to forge a settlement on the eve of trial,” Wilen said. Meanwhile, private firms are heeding calls for help. In Massachusetts, Holland & Knight last year helped secure a favorable outcome for three public housing agencies that sued the state over squalid conditions and inadequate funding of public housing units. Boston Housing Authority v. Massachusetts, No. 06 4831 (Suffolk Co., Mass., Super. Ct.). The housing authorities sought to obtain funds that had been authorized, but not paid, for public housing operations, as well as an increase in future operating funds. The lawsuit, which was dismissed, resulted in millions of dollars being paid to the public housing authorities, as well as a pledge by the state to increase funds for public housing in 2008 and to work to improve housing conditions for the poor. “I have no doubt that the presence of Holland & Knight representing these housing authorities contributed significantly to the cooperation that we received from the state and the resolution of the case,” said Stephen Young of Holland’s Boston office, who handled the suit on behalf of the public housing authorities.

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