J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · December 21, 2020

CHARLESTOWN, Ind.—Christmas came early this year for residents of the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood in Charlestown, Indiana, after Judge Jason Mount signed an order barring the city from using its property maintenance code to force people out of their homes. The order formalizes a settlement agreement between the city and neighborhood and—after nearly four years—brings the neighborhood’s lawsuit against the city to a close.

As part of the settlement and order, the city has agreed to three things: First, it will give homeowners a reasonable opportunity to fix their homes before the city levies any fines. Second, it will not target the Pleasant Ridge neighborhood with code enforcement more than any other neighborhood in Charlestown. Last, it will not penalize anyone if they demand a warrant before the city performs an inspection of rental property. The order comes after Charlestown’s previous mayor Bob Hall, who lost his 2019 reelection bid, led an effort that imposed millions of dollars in daily accruing fines to force Pleasant Ridge property owners to sell to a private developer for just $10,000 per home.

“Four years ago, when things seemed darkest for the homeowners, IJ client Ellen Keith vowed that when the fight was over, she and her husband David would still be in their home and she was right,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Anthony Sanders. “With this settlement and order, the city has agreed to never again use its power to levy fines to force residents out of their homes.”

The saga in Charlestown started in 2014 when then-Mayor Bob Hall decided that the working-class neighborhood of Pleasant Ridge had to go. That initial plan was thwarted when the city council refused to go along. After a November 2015 election, which Bob Hall won along with a slate of pro-redevelopment council members, the plan to eradicate Pleasant Ridge commenced. Under his direction, the Charlestown Redevelopment Commission came up with a scheme to replace the affordable houses of Pleasant Ridge with a planned “village-style” neighborhood, consisting of upscale housing and retail. The plans intended to replace all of the WWII-era Pleasant Ridge homes—whether owner-occupied or rentals—with new homes that the current residents couldn’t hope to afford. Working behind the scenes with a private developer, the city weaponized its property code and targeted owners for immediate, daily fines for rental properties.

The city initially focused on landlords and their rental units, including fines for minor or trivial property code violations—like a torn screen, chipped paint or a downed tree limb. The citations stated that the owner owed $50 per violation, per day, and multiple citations were issued per property, which meant that a single home accumulated hundreds of dollars in fines per day. Within weeks, Pleasant Ridge property owners had racked up millions of dollars in fines. Then the city made an offer that many property owners, faced with crippling fines, could not afford to refuse. If the owners agreed to sell their homes to the private developer for $10,000, the city would waive the fines.

The plan was as diabolical as it was unconstitutional. And it wasn’t limited to landlords. Various city planning documents, internal correspondence, text messages and a city council resolution made clear that homeowners were targeted as well. There were also internal discussions about using eminent domain to force homeowners out. The city and its developer envisioned an entirely new neighborhood with new and wealthier residents.

Pleasant Ridge residents partnered with the Institute for Justice and sued in January 2017. In December 2018, after a hearing in which former Mayor Hall testified that he would not promise to let homeowners keep their homes, Judge Mount issued a preliminary injunction against the city. The city appealed and lost. Those victories for the homeowners prevented the city from issuing any new fines, but didn’t completely derail the mayor’s plan. By then, hundreds of homes had been sold to the developer and, after months of sitting vacant, they were eventually razed. Finally, in 2019 the mayor lost reelection to Treva Hodges—who had campaigned on saving Pleasant Ridge—and settlement discussions began.

“No one should have to go through what we’ve gone through,” said Pleasant Ridge resident Tina Barnes, who was a plaintiff in the case. “What the city did to our neighborhood wasn’t just immoral, it was unconstitutional. Thankfully, with the help of IJ, we were able to stop the city’s illegal land grab. Now, with that in our past, it is time to focus on the future and rebuild our community.”