As we've mentioned before, Dallas has been grappling for some time with how to regulate the city's nearly 280 group homes, those halfway houses and assisted-living facilities that are protected by federal housing laws.
But the operator of 14 North Texas group homes for Alzheimer's patients isn't waiting for the city to sort all that out. It filed a lawsuit in federal court this month, alleging that the city is violating the federal Fair Housing Act by enforcing a limit of eight unrelated disabled people under one roof. The company, Avalon Residential Care Homes, also claims the city is retaliating for a previous lawsuit it filed over a decade ago.
Avalon first tangled with the city in 1997, when it opened its first Alzheimer's group home on Glendora Avenue. Codes required that it be 1,000 feet from other group homes for the disabled, and after calls to the city and state turned up none, the Glendora location appeared kosher.
But it wasn't long before someone complained, pointing out two nearby facilities for the disabled. Never mind that the homes were unlicensed and operating illegally, and that Avalon couldn't possibly have looked them up. The city ordered the company to shutter the group home.
Avalon sought a special use permit, and the City Plan Commission staff recommended approval. But the commission denied the request. The company fired back, filing a lawsuit in federal court. And as city lawyers tried to get the suit tossed, the United States Attorney's Office's Civil Rights Division stepped in, filing a brief slamming the city for violating the Fair Housing Act with onerous city codes. Dallas "may violate the Act when it applies its ordinances 'rigidly and in a manner blind'" to the needs of disabled people, the feds wrote, quoting a previous federal court decision.
And why, the U.S. Attorney's Office also wondered, was the city hassling a licensed group home for its proximity to the two unlicensed ones?
The concern is a snowball effect: Strict zoning discourages new group homes, and low occupancy caps render those that remain -- like Avalon's -- financially insolvent. The feds' brief must have been persuasive, because the city and Avalon eventually settled. The Glendora house remained in business, and the company even expanded to new locations.
Now, some 10 years later, the city and Avalon are scuffling once again, this time over occupancy caps. Avalon now operates seven group homes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes, "several" of which house more than eight disabled adults, First Assistant City Attorney Chris Bowers tells Unfair Park in a written statement. He says, just as city lawyers did in the late 1990s, that Avalon should just set up shop elsewhere -- in multi-family apartments, a mixed-use zoning district or downtown, where the ordinance doesn't apply.
Neither Avalon's owner, Ruth Anne Seib, nor her attorney responded to calls for comment. But along with accusing the city of violating federal housing laws, Avalon claims that Dallas's enforcement amounts to little more than stale retribution.
Bowers says that the city is merely enforcing the law: "That is clearly not 'retaliation," he writes.