Arkansas City Accused of Targeting Poor

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CN) – An Arkansas couple says they are being ordered to leave their community because their $1,500 trailer is too cheap to comply with a new city ordinance that criminalizes struggling residents “simply because they are poor.”

David Watlington and Lindsey Hollaway say their $13,000 combined annual income places them below the federal poverty line and they cannot afford a trailer with a value of at least $7,500, as the city of McCrory’s trailer-banishment ordinance requires.

The engaged couple are the lead plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday by nonprofit Equal Justice Under Law, accusing McCrory and Police Chief Paul Hatch of running a wealth-based banishment scheme using the city law that calls for fines of up to $500 for each day a violation exists.

Watlington and Hollaway claim the ordinance is unconstitutional because it discriminates on the basis of wealth status, criminalizes poverty and imposes excessive fines for violators “whose only offense is being poor.”

“Plaintiffs have been ordered to leave McCrory only because they cannot afford a more expensive home,” the Little Rock federal complaint states. “McCrory’s ordinance is, therefore, a wealth-based banishment scheme, imposing a ‘fate universally decried by civilized people.’”

The lawsuit calls banishment a “drastic punishment” that the Arkansas Constitution forbids at the state level. It also claims the ordinance contains no defense based on non-willfulness, “meaning simply being too poor to afford a more expensive home is sufficient for a violation.”

“Defendants cannot banish residents from the city simply because they are poor,” the complaint states. “It is unconstitutional to criminalize a status, such as poverty.”

According to the lawsuit, the city claims the ordinance’s passage is justified because it provides relief from overcrowding, is good for health, gives notification to builders and promotes orderly growth.

But Watlington and Hollaway argue those purported justifications are pretext for animus and banishment based on wealth status.

“It is illogical to claim that a restriction can encourage ‘growth’ of any kind. If growth is to be encouraged, it must first be allowed,” the class action states. “By forcing poor residents who live in mobile homes out of the city, defendants are discouraging growth. ‘Encourage orderly growth’ is a euphemism for ‘get rid of the poor.’” (Emphasis in original.)

McCrory, about 85 miles northeast of Little Rock, has an approximate population of 1,729 residents. About a quarter of Woodruff County citizens live below the federal poverty level, which is defined as a $15,930 annual income for a two-person household.

The lawsuit says that the $7,500 value requirement serves no legitimate health purpose, as “a gold-plated shower would increase the value of a mobile home without making it healthier.”

Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, said in a statement that the city’s attempt to banish its most impoverished citizens “is unconscionable discrimination.”

“David and Lindsey own their trailer, pay rent on their property, and are being forced out of their home simply because McCrory considers them undesirable” Telfeyan said. “McCrory should invest in its residents rather than criminalizing poverty.”

McCrory Mayor Doyle Fowler and City Attorney Ralph Myers did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

The proposed class seeks damages for alleged civil rights violations, as well as an order to permanently enjoin the city from enforcing “their unconstitutional wealth-based banishment scheme against plaintiffs, including all efforts to force plaintiffs to leave McCrory.”

Watlington and Hollaway are represented by Equal Justice Under Law and John D. Coulter with McMath Woods in Little Rock.

A hearing on whether a temporary restraining order will be issued is set for Thursday at 10 a.m. in Little Rock federal court.