A federal judge has been asked to decide whether a company that rents rooms to recovering substance abusers has improperly located a group home leased from a former gubernatorial candidate within a Chicago residential neighborhood.
On May 16, Chicago-based A Fresh Start Sober Living filed documents to remove a lawsuit filed in Cook County Circuit Court against it, the city's Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) and Scott Lee Cohen, who ran as an independent for governor in 2010 after withdrawing as the Democratic candidate in the lieutenant governor's race.
Filed in April in circuit court, the suit was brought by Jeff Morrison and Heidi Rinehart, who own a home in the Bucktown neighborhood, very close to a group home A Fresh Start operates out of a house in the 2100 block of N. Winchester Avenue and allegedly leases from Cohen.
Morrison and Rinehart contend the city has improperly allowed the group home, used for people recovering from an addiction to illegal drugs and alcohol, to operate for at least three years without the special use permit they claim the city’s zoning ordinance requires.
The operation, the plaintiffs allege, has degraded their neighborhood, as they blame the residents of the A Fresh Start home on Winchester Avenue for increased traffic congestion, crime, harassment of neighbors and littered streets, among other problems.
They allege that A Fresh Start is a for-profit business that merely rents living quarters, and does not actually provide any rehabilitative services to the purported recovering substance abusers living in its leased homes.
A Fresh Start operates seven other “transient halfway houses” at various other locations in the city of Chicago, according to the suit.
Cohen is named in the suit because they plaintiffs allege he has leased the property to A Fresh Start, knowing it was an improper use of the home in which he once lived. They contend Cohen collects more than $58,000 annually from the lease of his property.
In response to a demand from the alderman representing that ward, A Fresh Start applied for a special use permit in 2013, but withdrew the application in the face of strong opposition from neighbors.
Instead, the organization has staked the operation of its home to a claim that the residents of the home, as people recovering from a “disease” of substance abuse and addiction, are considered “handicapped" under the federal Fair Housing Act, and thus a protected class.
In its removal notice, A Fresh Start contends that its Fair Housing Act argument, as opposed to the plaintiffs' zoning violation claim, is the central legal question of the case, and justifies the removal of the case from county to federal court.
It notes that all of the defendants, with the exception of the city's (ZBA), have consented to remove the matter to federal court. The board, the notice states, believes state court is the more favorable forum for the suit.
A Fresh Start asserts that the board's consent is not necessary to remove the matter, because the Fair Housing claim is a separate claim that only applies to it.
It also argues that the ZBA only carries a nominal risk of being held liable in the matter if the court ends up ruling for the plaintiffs. It further states the plaintiffs lack standing to sue the board because it has not yet ruled on any special use permit, nor does it now have an application pending before it.
A Fresh Start is being represented in the case by attorney Leland H. Chait of Sugar, Felsenthal, Grais and Hammer LLP in Chicago.
Morrison and Rinehart are being represented by attorneys Michael T. Franz and Carly Deutch of Sanchez, Daniels and Hoffman LLP in Chicago.
Electronic court records show an attorney has yet to enter an appearance on behalf of Cohen and that no deadlines or hearings have been set.
The above photo was taken from A Fresh Start's website and shows the house at issue in the suit.