Justice Department: Group Home Ordinance Violates Fair Housing Act
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the city of Springfield, Ill. this week, claiming a zoning ordinance discriminates against people with disabilities.
The city’s ordinance mandates group homes must be at least 600 feet apart from each other. In its complaint, filed in federal court, the DOJ said the ordinance was discriminatory because it applies solely to homes for people with disabilities.
In addition, the city violated the Fair Housing Act in not making an exception to the rule for a three-person group home it tried to close in the 2300 block of Noble Avenue, the lawsuit says.
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The organization operating the Noble Avenue home, Individual Advocacy Group, and the sister of one of the tenants sued the city last year in the federal court, contending the house should be considered a family residence and not a family-care residence under zoning laws because five or fewer people live there, which is the city’s definition of a family.
That lawsuit is ongoing. A representative for Individual Advocacy Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Initially not knowing that another group home was operating 160 feet away, the three tenants lived in the ranch-style home on Noble Avenue since March 2014. It was modified by the homeowners to rent to those with physical disabilities.
Once the homeowners and IAG were made aware of the ordinance violation by the city, they applied for a permit to be an exception to the ordinance. In December of last year, the Springfield City Council denied the permit. The thought at the time was to apply the ordinance consistently.
In its complaint, the DOJ maintains the ordinance itself is discriminatory.
“The city’s application of its spacing requirement to group homes with five or fewer residents is discrimination based on disability because this requirement does not apply to housing for up to five unrelated persons who do not have disabilities,” the complaint stated.
The DOJ said the home did not appear outwardly different from any of the other homes on the block, nor were there any incidents. Two of the tenants were away from the home during the day and there were never more than three cars in the driveway.
“The Fair Housing Act prohibits cities from applying their zoning laws in a manner that discriminates against persons with disabilities,” John Gore, acting assistant attorney general of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, said in a statement. “We will continue to vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on such discrimination.”
The DOJ is asking for the ordinance to no longer be enforced and for a civil penalty to be weighed against the city.
Mayor Jim Langfelder and the city council went into executive session during a city council committee meeting this week to discuss the DOJ’s complaint. Because the lawsuit was filed the same day, Langfelder told reporters he had not yet been able to review it.
“It’s not a domestic family as you would normally see it, it’s a group home. That’s what was applied here in this case,” Langfelder said of the ordinance.
Last year, the Department of Justice reached a settlement with the city of Beaumont, Texas, which was sued over imposing a half-mile spacing rule for small group homes serving people with disabilities.
Beaumont agreed to change its zoning and land-use practices, allowing the homes to operate in any residential neighborhood, and pay $475,000 in fines and damages.
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