In Jacksonville, Florida, WOKV Radio 104.5 FM
- The City of Jacksonville is poised to settle lawsuits alleging discrimination against disabled veterans.
Federal court records obtained by WOKV show Ability Housing of Northeast Florida, Disability Rights of Florida, and the City of Jacksonville have come to terms over a pending lawsuit dealing with a project that would have housed homeless, disabled veterans in Springfield. A related case with the Department of Justice has also reached a settlement. In all, the City will pay close to $2 million in fines, attorney’s fees, and other requirements, while making changes to zoning laws. The settlement comes without any admission of wrongdoing.
Both of the settlements are now pending approval by the City Council before they’re final.
The lawsuit stems from a dispute that started in 2013. Ability Housing was poised to purchase a 12-unit apartment building in Springfield to rent to disabled homeless veterans, using special federal vouchers that allow the group to rent to this population at a reduced rate. The non-profit secured $1,355,222 from Florida Housing Finance Corporation to renovate the building, and was only waiting for a Certificate of Use ["COU"] from the Jacksonville Planning Department in order to move forward.
There was backlash in the community over the planned apartments, however, largely centered on the fact that Ability Housing planned for the residents to be homeless, disabled veterans with a primary diagnosis of mental illness or chronic illness. Ability Housing planned for that because of the apartment’s proximity to a VA clinic, although they did not intend to provide any services on site for the residents.
The zoning laws give special designations in Springfield that allow for a multiple-family dwelling, but not “special uses” like residential treatment facilities, rooming houses, emergency shelter homes, group care homes, and community residential homes over six residents. Ability Housing believed their plan would be a multiple-family dwelling, because they were renting the apartments and doing nothing further on site, which is similar to the prior use of the building. Springfield residents continued to put pressure on City officials, however, over concerns about the unspecified threat the new residents would pose. The residents, and ultimately the City, believed the proposed use did not fit the definition of multiple-family dwelling under the zoning law.
Ultimately, the COU was denied. Ability Housing says that led them to lose the Florida Housing Finance Corporation funding, as well as $124,000 in out of pocket expenses they had already put in to the project. Appeals aimed at reversing the City’s decision were heard, but not successful.
Ability Housing filed a lawsuit in 2015 claiming violations under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit claims that, per the City’s interpretation of the Springfield Zoning Overlay, the Overlay itself violates FHA and ADA because it prohibits housing for the disabled. In December 2016, the Justice Department joined in the fight, saying the City discriminated on the basis of disability by preventing this development for persons with disabilities.
Ability Housing further says the City “retaliated” by cutting off funding through a City program known as the Jacksonville Journey. The federal court records claim the City said they couldn’t provide Ability Housing any Journey funds anymore because of the lawsuit.
The City of Jacksonville has continually maintained they don’t discriminate against disabled persons, nor do any laws or policies they abide by.
Federal court records obtained by WOKV show neither side is admitting wrongdoing, and both maintain their arguments. They, nonetheless, decided to reach a settlement, citing the desire to avoid an uncertain trial and the continued cost that would bear.
Under the settlement, the City of Jacksonville will pay Ability Housing $400,000 for out of pocket expenses that couldn’t be recovered and some attorney’s fees and costs. The City will pay DRF $25,000 for attorney’s fees and costs. They will also establish a $1.5 million grant for the development of “Permanent Supportive Housing” for persons with disabilities. The grant will be awarded to a qualified developer following a competitive bid process.
A consent decree was also reached in the related case with the Justice Department, which levies a $25,000 civil penalty against the City.
Other non-monetary terms include the City withdrawing their “Written Interpretation” that prevented this project in Springfield. They will also submit an ordinance to the City Council that would add new procedures for a person with disabilities to get reasonable accommodations, while removing some of the prohibitions at issue in this debate- including some of the provisions of the Springfield overlay. While that ordinance must be introduced, the settlement acknowledges that the City Council can vote it down.
The Justice Department is also requiring the City designate a person to be the Fair Housing Compliance Officer, or someone who will deal with allegations of housing discrimination. City officers, elected and appointed officials, and employees dealing with zoning and related areas are also now required to be trained on these changes, FHA and provisions on disability discrimination, and ADA and the application to zoning. That training will be done at the City’s expense.
Ability Housing will also be able to seek Journey funding once again.
The two-week trial had been slated for February. The settlement agreements have now been filed with the City Council for approval in the coming weeks.