The City of Jacksonville has agreed to settle lawsuits alleging violations of federal housing and disability regulations stemming from its determination that a proposed housing redevelopment project in the city’s historic Springfield neighborhood amounted to a prohibited special use under relevant zoning laws. The project at the center of these lawsuits was the proposed renovation of a Jacksonville apartment complex to be funded under a grant obtained by Ability Housing of Northeast Florida for the purpose of providing permanent supportive housing to individuals with disabilities experiencing chronic homelessness. City officials initially nixed the project amidst public concern regarding the possible increase of social service housing projects within the one-square mile historic district.
Under terms of the city’s settlement with Ability Housing, Disability Rights Florida, and the U.S. Department of Justice – approved by the Jacksonville City Council at its May 23rd council meeting – the city has agreed to rescind its original determination relating to the project, and to revise relevant portions of its zoning code.
The revisions would require code interpretations consistent with the federal Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts, while also specifying that the permanent supportive housing at issue is properly characterized as a multiple-dwelling use that is therefore allowed wherever the city permits multiple-family dwellings. The city’s zoning code will be further amended to authorize residential treatment facilities and group homes for persons with disabilities as allowable exceptions. The amended zoning code will also include a specific procedure for individuals with disabilities to request reasonable accommodations or modifications on the basis of disability from the city’s code requirements as required by federal law.
The city has also agreed to establish and award a grant totaling $1.5 million to a qualified developer for development of permanent supportive housing units for persons with disabilities within city limits in the next year. As defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “permanent supportive housing” is intended to provide long-term, community-based housing incorporating supportive services for homeless individuals with disabilities to enable “special needs populations to live as independently as possible in a permanent setting.”
The dispute began in 2014, following the award of a $1.3 million grant to Ability Housing by the Florida Housing Finance Corporation to redevelop a 12-unit apartment complex in the Springfield historic district as permanent supportive housing. Under the proposal submitted by the nonprofit, the renovated units were to be offered on a permanent basis for rent to individuals with disabilities and a history of experiencing chronic homelessness. No staff would reside on premises, and residents would coordinate with outside providers for all treatment services and needs.
Although city officials initially acknowledged the project’s proposed zoning, before permits had been obtained for the project mounting pressure from concerned residents in the community led to a ruling by the city’s Director of Planning and Development that the project violated provisions in Springfield’s zoning overlay by authorizing the residency of individuals receiving treatment and related services for mental illness. Such determination was upheld across a series of appeals and related attempts by Ability Housing to obtain a Certificate of Use, during which time the nonprofit lost the grant funding it had originally secured for the project.
Both Ability Housing and Disability Rights Florida filed suit against the city in November, 2015 alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts. In its suit, Disability Rights Florida noted that the “effect of these actions by the City of Jacksonville is that persons with disabilities are unlawfully restricted from enjoying dwellings in the Springfield neighborhood and this unnecessarily deteriorates the possibility of these individuals from fully integrating into the community.”
As a part of the city’s approved settlement of the nonprofits’ lawsuits, Ability Housing and Disability Rights Florida will each receive the reasonable fees and costs of their actions against the city, and Ability Housing will be compensated for additional out-of-pocket expenses in pursuing review of the city’s determination. Ability Housing was represented by the law firm Akerman, LLP.
David Boyer, lead counsel for Disability Rights Florida, noted, “While this is obviously a big victory for Ability Housing, it is an even bigger victory for individuals with disabilities in the City of Jacksonville. This settlement will help to ensure that discrimination doesn’t affect our clients’ and constituents’ choice to live in the community.”
In a related enforcement action brought by the U.S. Department of Justice last year, the city has further agreed to designate a compliance officer to receive complaints of alleged housing and disability discrimination against the city, and to ensure the city’s compliance with the decree. Additionally, the city has agreed to provide training on the Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Acts to all city officers, elected and appointed officials, and employees who have duties related to the planning, zoning, permitting, construction, code enforcement, or occupancy of residential housing. Finally, the decree also directs the city to pay a $25,000 civil penalty to “vindicate the public interest” pursuant to federal law.
“We hope that this result will show other communities that discrimination against persons with disabilities will not be tolerated,” said Curtis Filaroski, staff attorney at Disability Rights Florida. “There are individuals and organizations that will stand firm against any action that erodes these important rights under federal law.”