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Fair Housing Violations Bring Steep Penalties

HUD housing and urban developmentOn June 10, 2014, the City of San Jacinto, in Riverside County, California, entered into a consent decree with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to resolve a lawsuit alleging disability discrimination under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).  The City agreed to change its land use laws governing group home living, and to pay a total of $746,599 in compensatory damages to housing providers and former residents with disabilities, as well as a $10,000 civil penalty to the United States.  The damages also include private plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees and costs.

The settlement marks an end to an almost two-year-old complaint, but a six–year-old battle, where private group home operators claimed the City enacted an ordinance intended to exclude unlicensed and some licensed homes for persons with disabilities, and by targeting homes for persons with disabilities for enforcement of the ordinance and other local laws.

On October 3, 2008, the City Council amended the San Jacinto Zoning Code (the “Zoning Code") by approving Ordinance 08-14 (the “ordinance"), which was passed by unanimous vote of the council.  The ordinance amended the Zoning Code's definition of "Group Home" or "Group Housing" to "[a] residence or dwelling, other than a hotel, wherein two (2) or more rooms, with or without individual cooking facilities, are rented to individuals under separate rental agreements or leases, either written or oral, whether or not an owner, agent, or rental manager is in residence, in order to preserve the residential character of the neighborhood."  The ordinance specifically exempted certain state-licensed congregate living facilities, such as "community care facilities," from its definition of "group homes," making those with six or fewer residents permitted uses in residential zones.

Prior to and after the City's enactment of the ordinance, the city's zoning code defined "family" as "an individual or two (2) or more persons related by blood, marriage or legal adoption, or a group of not more than 6 persons who are not related, living together as a single house-keeping unit in a dwelling unit."

In conjunction with the passage of the ordinance, the City’s code enforcement officers, including uniformed officers of the County Sherriff’s Department, investigated group homes. These actions included intrusive and direct questioning of residents about whether they were on parole, on medication and/or recovering from addiction.  After these investigations, the City continued to cite providers of group homes for persons with disabilities for illegal operation of a group home in a residential zone.

Thereafter, the City allowed for a reasonable accommodation process to consider placing group homes in residential neighborhoods, but its proposed conditions were not acceptable to group home providers and they filed a complaint.

HUD’s investigation led to findings that the City had, in fact, discriminated against people with disabilities under the FHA and ADA.  The consent decree provides the following injunctive relief:

  • The City shall not impose restrictions on housing for persons with disabilities not imposed on housing for an equal or greater number of persons without disabilities.  Actions prohibited include, but are not limited to, the imposition, through any provision or practice, of numerical occupancy limits on group housing for unrelated persons with disabilities that is more restrictive than numerical occupancy limits for families or other unrelated persons.
  • The City was required to adopt new ordinances to establish a new zoning classification, "Group Homes for Persons with Disabilities," and amend the City's reasonable accommodation procedure.
  • The City is required to maintain records of all oral and written requests for reasonable accommodation or modification and the City's responses thereto for a period of three (3) years following the date of the request and the group home’s response, as applicable.
  • The City shall not impose any additional fees, costs, or otherwise retaliate against any person who has exercised his or her right under the FHA or ADA to make one or more requests for reasonable accommodation or modification.
  • Immediately upon entry of the consent decree, the City shall cease any efforts to close or bring other enforcement actions against housing for persons with disabilities operated in accordance with the FHA and the ADA, including but not limited to, homes for persons with disabilities operated by the complainants (City by Aurora Beltran and Rajeeyah Bilal-Vamey located at 325 East Third Street and 1835 Rogers Way, respectively), so long as these homes continue to operate in compliance with all laws.
  • The City is required to appoint a Fair Housing Compliance Officer, and City staff, City Council members, Planning Commissioners, and the Sherriff’s officers are required to undergo fair housing training.

HUD’s investigations of fair housing violations are taking an expensive toll on local governments.  If you advise a city that is considering restrictive zoning; or differential treatment of the number of family members as compared to the number of unrelated people with disabilities that can live together in the same zone, then consider the San Jacinto consent decree as a warning to take such actions cautiously.  If the ordinance ultimately results in unfair treatment to group home providers, then do not be surprised if fair housing advocates complain to HUD.

 

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