An organization that had been seeking to open another group home in Springfield has filed a suit against the city, claiming discrimination in the city’s zoning practices.
Volunteers of America, Inc., a non-profit group that has operated a group home on Deer Road for nearly 15 years, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Savannah late last month. The organization claims the city is unlawfully denying its request to establish a group home, stating in its filing that the city’s zoning practices "discriminate against individuals with intellectual disabililties" and against those who provide services to those individuals.
The VOA filed its suit under the Fair Housing Act, alleging six counts of discrimination and two counts of denial of equal protection.
The VOA said the planning and zoning board and the city council’s decision against a "reasonable accommodation" was made because of "strong discriminatory opposition to the group home, was motivated by public prejudice against individuals with intellectual disabilities and was made with the intent to discriminate against individuals with intellectual disabilities."
The city wrongfully required the Volunteers of America-Georgia to apply for a variance for a proposed group home on Chestnut Street and wrongfully denied VOA-Georgia a conditional use, variance or special exception, according to the lawsuit. The city and planning board, the VOA-Georgia charges, "acted with the intent to discriminate against individuals with disabilities and against entities providing service to such individuals."
Through a contract with the state Department of Behavorial Health and Developmental Disabilities, VOA sets up and runs group homes for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Those disabilities include mental illness.
Through the group home setting, the VOA said, it provides a normal home environment for its clients who cannot live on their own. Mental health professionals prefer the group home model for providing residential services to individuals with mental or intellectual disabilities.
VOA-Georgia won a contract from the state in 1997 to operate a group home for chronically mentally ill residents of Chatham and Effingham counties. VOA leased a home at 102 Deer Road for up to six people with mental illnesses.
No staff members live in the home, though staff members are present 24 hours a day, typically one or two per shift, according to the VOA. Staff members provide supervision and structured activities, along with training in independent living skills.
Staff members also make residents take their medications and attend their appointments with medical and psychiatric professionals.
The VOA said it became dissatisfied with the condition of its Deer Road house two years ago, and it was the permanent home of the group home members. One member had been there since 1999. Three others have been there for nine years and another had lived there for seven years.
The VOA said the group home members constituted a family.
Two years ago, the state stopping putting those with developmental disabilities in state hospitals and opted to put them in situations such as group homes. The state had to move 150 people with developmental disabilities to community living arrangements by July 1, 2011, according to the VOA’s lawsuit, and had to move 150 such people from state hospitals to group homes or other arrangements each year until 2015.
The VOA wanted to move its current Deer Road residents to a home on Chestnut Street, which was zoned R-1. It would repair and continue to operate its Deer Road home for others with mental and developmental disabilities.
The state approved the Deer Road site as a group home for four people with developmental disabilities in February 2011. Georgia has separate regulations for group homes that provide service to individuals with mental illnesses and for group homes that house those with developmental disabilities.
The VOA was in the process of getting a license of the Chestnut Street house for six individuals but the city said the group home was not allowed R-1 zoning and a variance and conditional use was needed.
In an email to the city, VOA-Georgia program manager Jerre Redding said she believed the individuals in the Deer Road house met the definition of "family" in the city’s zoning ordinances because "they are a group of persons interrelated by bond." Because of that, Redding argued the group home was a permitted use for the Chestnut Street locale.
City Manager Brett Bennett responded, according to the suit, that group homes are allowed only in R-3 zones.
In an October 2011 Springfield Planning and Zoning Board hearing, citizens expressed concerns that the group home would be a business in a family neighborhood and that individuals with intellectual disabilities are violent and belligerent.
"The Board members did nothing to allay or contradict the pervasive misconceptions about individuals with mental illness expressed by the citizens," the lawsuit states.
According to the lawsuit, the city "effectively excluded group homes for individuals with intellectual disabilities from any residential district. The restriction of group dwellings to R-3 zones, in which there are no single-family dwellings, is being enforced "with the intent to discriminate against individuals with intellectual disabilities and those who provide services to them." The 1999 zoning ordinance continued to exclude "feeble minded or mental patients" from the definition of care home, and that, the suit alleges that was done to discriminate "against individuals with intellectual disabilities who are unable to care for themselves and those who provide service to them."
In a subsequent city council meeting, the same citizens’ concerns were aired, and the council members "did not seek to allay the citizens’ concerns and misconceptions," the VOA said.
The VOA claims a conditional permit use, special exception or variance because the home’s residents fit the description of a family and the home meets the definition of senior residential facility and group dwelling. It also meets the definition of care home and within the parameters for a home occupation business, the VOA claims.
With the change in its license for the Deer Road home, the VOA-Georgia is in violation of its contract with the state and it does not have an alternate location for the group home family. The only two areas with R-3 zoning in the city are an apartment complex and an undeveloped area along Highway 21.
Even if it could buy the R-3 land along Highway 21, the VOA-Georgia says, it could not buy the land and develop fast enough to prevent a default on its state contract, and it has not been able to offer services to individuals with developmental disabilities at its Deer Road site.
By their actions, the zoning board and the city have deprived the group home family of the opportunity "to use and enjoy the dwelling of their choice" on Chestnut Street and that deprivation will continue for the foreseeable future, the VOA claims.