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Debate over Springfield homeless apartments sparking questions over fair-housing laws

Posted: August 31, 2014 - 10:18pm  |  Updated: September 1, 2014 - 9:06am
FILE PHOTO - JoAnn Tredennick, and members of the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council are worried about plans by Ability Housing of NE Fla. to turn an 85-year-old building on Cottage Avenue into 12 apartments for homeless veterans. Tredennick posed in front of the building on Wednesday, April 2, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Florida Times-Union/Bruce Lipsky)
FILE PHOTO - JoAnn Tredennick, and members of the Springfield Preservation and Revitalization Council are worried about plans by Ability Housing of NE Fla. to turn an 85-year-old building on Cottage Avenue into 12 apartments for homeless veterans. Tredennick posed in front of the building on Wednesday, April 2, 2014 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Florida Times-Union/Bruce Lipsky)

The settlement of a federal lawsuit in New Orleans could impact a bitter fight over plans to open an apartment building for homeless people in Springfield.

The New Orleans case ended recently with that city reversing itself and promising the U.S. Justice Department it would approve a project it blocked earlier in a historic neighborhood where neighbors had resisted a nonprofit’s efforts to house homeless people.

To close the case without a trial, New Orleans also agreed to change its zoning laws to regularly allow similar housing, and to pay for an extra 350 units of housing for people who had been homeless.

Backers of a Jacksonville nonprofit pursuing their own homeless apartments want Planning Commission members to remember that when they hear arguments Thursday for and against the city planning director’s conclusion that the Springfield project would be prohibited under neighborhood zoning rules.

“It sure looks like it’s a case that’s right on point,” said Greg Matovina, chairman of Ability Housing of Northeast Florida, the nonprofit that won state funding this year to buy and renovate the apartment building on Cottage Avenue. “I’m certain it will be mentioned at the hearing.”

But a city attorney argued the case isn’t very similar to the decision facing the commission.

“It’s kind of an apples and oranges thing at this point,” said Jason Teal, the city’s chief of environmental law, although he said the New Orleans lawsuit could matter down the road.

The commission is reviewing Planning Director Calvin Burney’s assessment of whether Ability Housing’s plan for a 12-unit apartment building for people described as “chronically homeless” is allowed under a set of zoning rules, called an overlay, that have been used in Springfield since about 2000.

Springfield, an enclave of buildings from the 19th and early 20th century north of downtown, had been for decades a magnet for cheap housing for people with disabilities and little money. Homeowners asked for the overlay to make the area more attractive to conventional buyers by banning new rooming houses, congregate living facilities and similar establishments.

But neighborhood zoning allows multifamily housing, and Ability Housing said it simply planned to buy, renovate and rent out a place that was built as an apartment building in the 1920s.

Neighbors objected, and one had a lawyer ask Burney for a ruling on whether the area’s zoning allowed what Ability Housing called “supportive housing,” a term not in the zoning ordinance.

Burney wrote May 29 that the description of what Ability Housing was planning “is akin to that of a rooming house or group care home.” He said facilities like that “served as the very basis of the implementation of the Springfield zoning overlay,” and a new one would be prohibited under zoning rules.

When New Orleans officials refused a zoning variance for a renovated apartment building with about 20 units for homeless people, the federal government sued in 2012.

Federal lawyers said the city violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act because the apartments that the city blocked would have gone to homeless people with disabilities.

Those are the same people Ability Housing targets with its Springfield plan.

All the tenants in the Springfield apartments would have disabilities, the nonprofit told a state agency when it applied for money for the project. Most were expected to have mental illnesses and long histories of psychiatric hospitalization, a grant application said.

Teal said Burney’s assessment is just a different situation. No one in Jacksonville has asked for a zoning variance or a permit or anything that would be needed to operate, only for an opinion about how to apply the zoning code. There could be questions later, Teal said, but not today.

Others see more similarities.

The New Orleans situation “is remarkably similar” to the choice the Planning Commission is being asked to make, said Jim Kowalski, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, which gets federal money to monitor compliance with fair housing requirements.

“Both cases involve protected classes of persons — formerly homeless people with disabilities,” Kowalski said in an email. “And the New Orleans case demonstrates both the great unmet need for affordable housing and the pitfalls of violating the Fair Housing Act.”

 

Steve Patterson: (904) 359-4263

Comments (2)

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johnctaughtme
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johnctaughtme 09/01/14 - 06:14 pm
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Premium Member

I think that many people

I think that many people would be surprised at just how non-liberal are many of the owners or landlords of low income and federally assisted housing.

CuriousMe
1832
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CuriousMe 09/01/14 - 05:38 pm
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Just another group of feel

Just another group of feel good liberals that want to get something free regardless of who it hurts.

Springfield was really run down, lots of it still is, but the folks who are trying to improve and stop it from sliding further don't stand a chance against this liberal push to make themselves feel good.

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