From the Field: Florida Advocates Celebrate Fair Housing Victory

Advocates for affordable and accessible homes in Jacksonville, FL are celebrating a recent decision by the City Council to settle lawsuits brought against the city for fair housing violations. Ability Housing, an NLIHC member, filed suit against the City of Jacksonville in 2015 after the city denied Ability Housing’s Certificate of Use application for a development that would house 12 formerly homeless veterans with disabilities because of the supportive services future residents might receive. Disability Rights Florida and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed separate suits against the city in response to the decision. On May 23, the Jacksonville City Council voted to settle with all three parties, agreeing to strengthen protections for persons with disabilities in the city’s zoning code, commit $1.5 million to the development of affordable housing, pay damages to the plaintiffs, and implement compliance measures mandated by DOJ.

Ability Housing had planned to purchase and redevelop a 12-unit apartment building in Jacksonville in 2014. Their project would have provided homes for 12 formerly chronically homeless individuals, with preference given to veterans with disabilities. Residents of the nearby neighborhood objected to the plan, recruiting school board officials and others in city government to argue that housing persons with disabilities posed a safety risk to the community. In response to these residents, the city issued an interpretation of local zoning rules that prohibit group homes, stating the proposed development was illegal. Because Ability Housing planned to provide supportive services for residents, the city considered their proposed development “akin” to a group home. When Ability Housing applied for the required Certificate of Use for the project the following year, the City of Jacksonville denied the request because of the services Ability Housing would offer residents.

Ability Housing filed suit against the City of Jacksonville in November 2015, arguing the city discriminated against the property because of the disabilities of the future residents, and in doing so, had violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Disability Rights Florida filed a separate suit in December 2015. DOJ began investigating the city’s actions that year and filed suit against the city in 2016. All three suits centered on the city’s prohibition of group homes and supportive services in a specific neighborhood, asserting that this prohibition directly discriminated against persons with disabilities and interfered with their ability to live in the community of their choice.

The mayor’s office negotiated settlements to all three suits earlier this year. According to the settlements, the city must affirmatively protect persons with disabilities in the zoning code, dedicate $1.5 million to affordable housing development, implement DOJ training and compliance requirements, and pay damages to Ability Housing and Disability Rights Florida. Local NIMBY leaders resisted the settlement, but the City Council ultimately affirmed it in May.

“We are pleased this matter has come to a successful conclusion,” said Shannon Nazworth, executive director of Ability Housing. “Jacksonville can now move forward knowing it has safeguards in place to ensure the rights of persons with a disability are not impinged.”

For more information, contact Shannon Nazworth at [email protected].