DOJ, Texas city reach settlement over exclusionary zoning, land use policies

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Housing news from Texas

A city in Texas will pay $475,000 in fines and eliminate zoning and land use restrictions on group homes for people with disabilities, as part of a settlement announced May 4 with the Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development.

“Group homes provide a critical source of housing for persons with disabilities and their availability shouldn’t be limited by discriminatory practices,” said Gustavo Velasquez, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, in a news release. “Today’s settlement reaffirms HUD and the Justice Department’s commitment to ensuring that jurisdictions meet their obligation to adhere to the nation’s fair housing laws.”

According to the lawsuit [PDF], filed in May 2015, the city zoning policy prohibits group homes from being placed within one-half of a mile of each other. While the city argued the requirement is necessary to ensure the facilities integrate with their surrounding communities, the lawsuit counters that it effectively bars the creation of any new group homes in the city.

The city’s fire code also requires a variety of special requirements for group homes, including an automatic sprinkler system, which costs $30,000, that it does not impose on other residences, and is not required under state law.

After multiple city residences attempted to get zoning variances and reasonable accommodation exceptions from the regulations, Disability Rights Texas filed a complaint with HUD. The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas, alleged that the requirements discriminate against people with disabilities, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Fair Housing Act.

In addition to lifting both the zoning and fire code restrictions, the consent decree requires the city to pay $435,000 in monetary fines to 11 individuals, family members and caregivers, as well as a $15,000 civil penalty to the federal government and $25,000 to Disability Rights Texas.

The city must also implement a reasonable accommodation policy, provide fair housing training and appoint a fair housing compliance officer.

“I applaud the parties for reaching this common-sense, fair agreement,” said U.S. Attorney John M. Bales of the Eastern District of Texas in the news release. “Beaumont is a great city in which to live and the prior restrictions now being set aside were inconsistent with that greatness. Now everyone can reside where they wish in an environment that is best for their lives.”

Disability Rights Texas and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are the designated protection and advocacy agencies in Texas and Washington, respectively, and are members of the National Disability Rights Network.