SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (CN) – The federal government claims in court that Springfield, Illinois tried to shut down a group home for disabled residents through a discriminatory zoning law requiring such facilities to be at least 600 feet apart from each other.
The Justice Department alleges Springfield’s ordinance prohibiting group homes for persons with disabilities from being located within 600 feet of a similar home favors group homes for people without disabilities over housing for the disabled.
According to the government, Springfield’s enforcement of its 600-foot spacing requirement for group homes with five or fewer residents is discriminatory because the requirement does not apply to housing for up to five persons who do not have disabilities.
The Justice Department sued Illinois’ capital city in Springfield federal court on Tuesday, alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act.
The government claims the city tried to shutter a facility that was home to three people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Two disabled residents now live there after the third passed away recently.
The two residents, who use wheelchairs, had once been institutionalized in large facilities, but moved into the group home after it was determined by the state that they were capable of living in the community, according to the complaint. They attend a day program from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. The government says that two staff members are present in the home to help the residents with their daily activities after they return from the day program until about 10 p.m.
In August 2016, Springfield initiated an enforcement action against the home, notifying the landlords that it violated the city’s 600-foot spacing ordinance.
However, the Justice Department says the city has been on notice since at least September 2014 of the home’s proximity to another group home for people with disabilities.
In October 2016, the landlords applied for a conditional permitted use, or CPU, permit to allow the home to operate without the 600-foot spacing requirement, according to the lawsuit.
The Justice Department says the landlords also asked for reasonable accommodation to its 600-foot spacing requirement based on the residents’ disabilities and the need for such housing in the community, to no avail.
“The Planning and Zoning Commission voted 4–3 to deny the CPU permit. On December 20, 2016, the City Council voted 8–2 to adopt that recommendation. Neither the Council nor the Planning and Zoning Commission discussed or addressed the request for a reasonable accommodation,” the complaint states. “To the contrary, the Mayor specifically advised against creating a ‘precedent’ for future CPU permit requests by group homes, thus indicating that no such requests should be granted.”
The Justice Department claims the city violated the Fair Housing Act by not making an exception for the group home it tried to close.
“The city has engaged in a pattern or practice of discrimination on the basis of disability and discriminated against a group of persons, in violation of the FHA, by refusing to make a reasonable accommodation to this spacing requirement for a small group home of three adults with intellectual and physical disabilities,” the lawsuit states.
A spokesperson for Springfield did not respond immediately to a request for comment Tuesday evening.
The government seeks a court order prohibiting Springfield from enforcing the spacing requirement against the home it tried to close or similar group homes for persons with disabilities. It also seeks monetary damages and a civil penalty.
John Gore, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a statement, “The Fair Housing Act prohibits cities from applying their zoning laws in a manner that discriminates against persons with disabilities. We will continue to vigorously enforce the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition on such discrimination.”