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City: Group home lawsuit centers on definition of 'family'

The State Journal-Register - 12/28/2017

Dec. 28--The city of Springfield is fighting back in two courts against claims its group home ordinance is discriminatory, arguing it applies to all residents, not just people with disabilities.

The ordinance says group homes must be at least 600 feet apart from one another. Within the city's zoning code, group homes are classified as a "family care residence," defined as a "family-like environment by a group of no more than six unrelated persons with disabilities, plus paid professional support staff provided by a sponsoring agency, either living with the residents on a 24-hour basis or present whenever residents with disabilities are present at the dwelling ..."

A "family," as defined in the zoning code, can be a "group of not more than five persons not all so related."

A lawsuit filed last year by inhabitants of a Noble Avenue group home and its medical assistance provider, Individual Advocacy Group, claims that because people without disabilities are not subject to spacing requirements, having such a requirement for group homes violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. A separate lawsuit, brought by the U.S. Department of Justice last month, makes a similar complaint.

Both lawsuits were filed in federal court. On Friday, the city responded to the Department of Justice's complaint, denying the assertion that five unrelated people without disabilities could live together as a "family" in a residential neighborhood.

On Thursday, it reiterated that response in a more thorough brief to the federal appeals court. In appealing an injunction by the lower court in the Individual Advocacy Group case, the city hoped the higher court would weigh in on how to interpret its zoning ordinance for single "family" residences.

In its brief, the city admitted the plaintiffs' argument would have merit if unrelated people without disabilities could live together, like the plaintiffs allege.

"If that interpretation allows five unrelated persons to live together as a family, then the ordinance is facially discriminatory because it requires unrelated disabled persons to be subjected to the 600 foot spacing requirement," city attorneys wrote in response. "The City actually agrees with that conclusion, but it very much contests the premise: our ordinance does not allow five unrelated persons to live together as a 'Family.'"

The true interpretation of who can live together in a single family home, the city said, is a group of mostly related people.

"The definition is meant as a safe harbor allowing a traditional family to take in an unrelated boarder without losing the right to occupy a single family home," city attorneys wrote.

City attorney Jim Zerkle has previously said the decision made by the federal appeals court will most likely affect the Department of Justice's case.

Briefs in support of the Individual Advocacy Group also were submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union, Access Living and Equip for Equality, an organization that advocates for those with disabilities.

They claim Illinois lagged behind in transitioning people with disabilities from large institutions to smaller group homes integrated into the community. They referenced a 2011 Illinois class action lawsuit that resulted in a consent decree allowing for those with disabilities to get state funding if they decide to live in a group home instead of an institution.

Since the consent decree, over 7,000 Illinois residents have moved to community-based living, according to a brief. One of the men living in the Noble Avenue group home was a class member in the 2011 case.

"Though there is a consent decree ... providing the opportunity for people to move out of institutions into the community of their choice, these rights cannot be fully realized if communities erect barriers to people with disabilities through zoning ordinances," Equip for Equality stated.

Contact Crystal Thomas: 788-1528, crystal.thomas@sj-r.com, twitter.com/crystalclear224.

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(c)2017 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill.

Visit The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. at www.sj-r.com

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