A substance abuse recovery organization has accused Chicago city officials of violating federal disability laws in citing city zoning rules to block the group’s application to allow a group of recovering substance abusers to live in a single family home in the city’s West Town neighborhood.
A Fresh Start Sober Living Environment, which says its “primary purpose is to provide safe and sober housing for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers,” filed suit in Chicago federal court March 31 against the city over the city’s actions in regards to the property the organization has leased at 530 N. Marshfield Ave.
In the complaint, Fresh Start invoked the Fair Housing Act’s definition of handicap, which includes in its definition of “physical or mental impairment” the terms “alcoholism” and “drug addiction (other than addiction caused by current, illegal use of a controlled substance),” and argues city policies violate FHA protections by inhibiting Fresh Start’s ability to rent sober housing to people in recovery.
Fresh Start says its residents are either employed or in school, or both, and have either completed substance abuse treatment or actively participate in 12-step programs. Clients come in via referral from several outside agencies. Many program residents, the complaint says, “are attorneys, law enforcement personnel, firefighters and high-end real estate brokers.” Along with two house managers, up to 12 clients live at the Marshfield property, used as a single-family home, “and make group decisions based on democratic procedures.”
Fresh Start signed its lease for the Marshfield property on Aug. 31, 2013. A Fresh Start alleged in its complaint that neighbors immediately began photographing and documenting residents’ movements, and verbally abusing and harassing residents, as well as delivery and service workers called to the home. The complaint detailed a pattern of conflict between neighbors and residents, including at least one incident in which police intervened in a conflict between the neighbors and a resident after the neighbors allegedly refused to move a parked vehicle to allow a resident leave in the morning. Neighbors also complaint to Ward 1 Ald. Proco Joe Moreno.
On Oct. 18, 2013, Fresh Start submitted a request to the city zoning administrator for a “reasonable accommodation” under the FHA. Three days later, Moreno and the Chicago Grand Neighbors Association organized a meeting to address the Marshfield house, which included a complaint to the Illinois Department of Substance Abuse that the property should be subject to licensing requirements. The department inspected a Fresh Start house and determined a license wasn’t needed, the complaint said, as no treatment activities were being conducted at the home. At a Feb. 22, 2014, meeting, Moreno’s chief of staff Raymond Valdez explained the city had no legal means to oppose the use of the home, according to the complaint.
The reasonable accommodation request stalled in March 2015 when a lawyer for the city advised the city’s definition of household would allow only eight people with disabilities, plus staff, so Fresh Start would need to appeal to Chicago’s Zoning Board of Appeals for a special use permit for a group community home. Moreno and several neighbors spoke against that application at the board’s May 28, 2015, hearing.
The board denied the application, which the complaint argues effectively denies needed housing opportunities to people with the disabilities of alcoholism and addiction. The complaint accused the city of “utilizing its police and zoning powers on this group of unrelated disabled individuals living together as a common household differently than it imposes upon individuals who are living together who are related by blood or marriage or other groups of unrelated disabled persons.”
The complaint asked the court to declare the city illegally discriminated against Fresh Start with FHA and ADA violations, and to declare Fresh Start’s use of the Marshfield house to be consistent with city zoning code. Fresh Start asked the court to force the city to adopt a reasonable accommodation ordinance to establish a process for similar situations, as well as to award legal fees and any damages available under federal law.
Attorneys Saul R. Wexler, of Chicago, and Steven G. Polin, of Washington, D.C., represented A Fresh Start in the matter.