Civil rights grievance alleges Kalamazoo zoning discriminates in opposition to Black and disabled folks

KALAMAZOO, MI – A civil rights complaint filed against Kalamazoo alleges that city zoning practices are discriminatory.

Former Kalamazoo-resident Brandi Crawford-Johnson, who is white, said she filed the complaint on behalf of herself and her husband, who is black.

The complaint alleges that the city did not re-divide the part of the city where they lived, as the neighborhood is mostly made up of African Americans. It is further alleged that the city knew Crawford-Johnson was disabled and that it was also discriminated against because of a disability.

The main concern of the complaint is whether resident health problems are related to odor and air quality issues at Graphic Packaging International’s facility near the neighborhood where Crawford-Johnson and her husband lived in Kalamazoo.

Related: In the Kalamazoo paper mill, odor injuries are piling up in order to obtain a greater tax break

After filing the complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights in November, the city of Kalamazoo stated in a statement sent to MLive that it continues to advocate compliance with civil rights laws.

Crawford-Johnson shared notice with MLive of a formal complaint it received from the Grand Rapids office of the Michigan State Department of Citizenship after filing a complaint with the agency. The department confirmed that the document contains an active complaint that is currently being investigated.

Crawford-Johnson said she previously attempted to raise air quality issues during a 2018 meeting of the Environmental Concerns Committee in Kalamazoo, and also discussed her concerns during a meeting of the city commission. Believing the officials did not take enough action, she said she decided to pursue legal options instead.

A look at Graphic Packaging International in Kalamazoo on April 2nd, 2020. (Garret Ellison | MLive)Garret Ellison | MLive

Crawford-Johnson’s complaint relates that in September the city approved a tax break for Graphic Packaging International, which it describes as a “dangerous facility,” near their former home on N. Church St., where they are from in 1625 May 2020 temporarily lived.

Related: Paper mill that causes foul smell receives tax break with conditions

The complaint also alleges that changes to city zones approved by city guides in November 2020 have taken place in areas with mostly white families and business owners. While the city made changes elsewhere in the city, it didn’t include its neighborhood, Crawford-Johnson said.

“I believe the interviewee deliberately did not redistribute our neighborhood because of the racist makeup of the community, which is mostly African American,” she said of her former home in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood.

With the November changes, the zone code and zoning map for the downtown area and adjacent blocks were changed according to the package presented to the Kalamazoo City Commission for their November 2nd meeting. The reallocation focused on downtown real estate and divided the only major development area in downtown Kalamazoo into three smaller districts.

The zoned downtown did not extend north of Willard Street, which is nearly a mile south of Crawford-Johnson’s house.

Related topics: Kalamazoo seeks community input on zoning changes in the city center

Crawford-Johnson said the city excluded its neighborhood from the zoning changes despite knowing that Graphic Packaging International (GPI) location is close to homes and schools. According to the company, GPI is one of the largest manufacturers of cardboard and paper-based packaging.

The Atlanta-based company, which employs 18,000 people in over 70 plants worldwide, has around 625 employees at the Kalamazoo site, including the mill. The company expects to create an additional 1,000 community jobs as part of a $ 600 million investment to expand local operations to a wasteland adjacent to the existing GPI facility. Local and state tax breaks totaling US $ 21 million have been approved to support the project.

Minutes of the November 2 meeting of the City Commission show that Crawford-Johnson made a comment on how Northside and Eastside residents should not be forced to live next to industrial properties. Crawford-Johnson said people in the neighborhood are being sacrificed and suffering because officials are more concerned about money than people.

“Rather than addressing the problem – people have stinging eyes, burning lungs, including myself and other community members – the city ignored our comments and took no action,” Crawford-Johnson said.

There is data showing gaps in health outcomes between different areas and communities in Kalamazoo. A 2019 health care needs assessment of the Kalamazoo community published by Bronson HealthCare recognizes inequalities that have hurt black residents over the years.

“Decades of social and institutional inequalities in the districts around the urban center of Kalamazoo have led to considerable racial and economic segregation as well as to a concentration of generational poverty. As a result, we are seeing similar negative effects on the health and health outcomes of people of color across the county, ”the document reads.

The document explains how the government’s 1937 home ownership restriction through a policy known as redlining prevented black families from obtaining government-supported home loans for over 30 years. Today, the same areas on the map are also the lowest estimated life expectancy areas in Kalamazoo County, the document says.

It is currently investigating whether the air quality could harm the residents of the region.

The Michigan Department of Health (DHHS) announced in December that it would review air quality monitoring data collected this year in residential and commercial areas around Graphic Packaging International’s Kalamazoo facility. Officials will investigate whether volatile organic compounds in the air pose a threat to people.

Related: Toxicologists examine Kalamazoo odors for potential health risks

The Civil Rights Department’s letter confirming the investigation into Crawford-Johnson’s complaint is signed by a civil rights investigator and a copy has been sent to the City of Kalamazoo. The department declined to release documents on the case as it was an active complaint that was still under investigation. However, the department confirmed that the document provided to MLive is the official document of a pending investigation.

Kalamazoo city spokesman Ryan Bridges said the city is aware of the complaint and has filed a response with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.

“The city of Kalamazoo is committed to complying with all civil rights laws and does not comment on any pending legal matters,” said Bridges.

The civil rights complaint is one of the strategies Crawford-Johnson uses to hold those responsible to justice. It is also party to a federal complaint against GPI alleging that the smell of GPI, labeled rotten cabbage and other nasty descriptors, is affecting the owners.

Related: Lawsuit Alleges Michigan Paper Mill Stinks Its Neighbors

In addition to being an issue in public discussions, Kalamazoo City officials have also spoken about the odor problem at closed meetings in the past. This is evident from the agendas of MLive received through the Freedom of Information Act.

GPI claims that an odor screening study conducted by RK & Associates and completed Nov. 3 concluded that GPI does not emit “offensive odors” in the community.

GPI previously said it plans to continue working with neighbors and the city to address odor concerns in Kalamazoo.

A smell task force, made up of city officials, was set up to address some of the issues raised by residents.

Crawford-Johnson said she spoke to others in her neighborhood who also said they were affected and encouraged them to file their own complaints with the state’s Department of Civil Rights.

Graphic Packaging sent MLive a statement when asked about the civil rights complaint.

“Graphic Packaging is not involved in this complaint and has not received a copy of the document,” the company said in an email message on Thursday, February 11th. “In general, we do not comment on any pending litigation or similar proceeding – especially if we are not a named party – and cannot comment on a filing that we have not seen.”

Read the note on a formal complaint below:

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