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Justice Department sues St. Bernard Parish over claims of housing discrimination
The Advocate - 12/7/2018
Dec. 07--The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against St. Bernard Parish on Thursday alleging parish officials have violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against people with disabilities.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans, says the parish failed to provide "reasonable accommodations" for such people in its zoning ordinance because officials blocked operators from opening two group homes for disabled children.
The homes had satisfied all of the state's relevant licensing requirements, officials with the Justice Department said in a news release.
"Nondiscriminatory housing is a fundamental right for all Americans, including those with disabilities, according to the Fair Housing Act," said U.S. Attorney Peter Strasser. "Our office, along with the department's Housing and Civil Enforcement section, will continue to protect the rights of all citizens within our district to attain housing."
The lawsuit seeks a court order prohibiting St. Bernard from applying its zoning code in a discriminatory manner. It also seeks monetary damages to compensate victims and payment of a civil penalty.
The Department of Justice announcement follows a federal lawsuit filed in 2017 by two St. Bernard residents who hoped to operate the therapeutic homes in one of the parish's many single-family neighborhoods.
That lawsuit is still pending.
The two would-be group home operators -- Dionna Richardson, owner of the home care company AngeliCare LLC, and Cathy Moore, owner of C. Moore Therapeutic Group Home LLC -- filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development after the parish denied their requests.
The 2017 lawsuit, which seeks unspecified financial damages and an injunction ordering the parish and the state to immediately allow the group homes to open, claimed that the parish improperly changed its zoning code to exclude group homes after the owners had already applied for licenses.
Richardson and Moore said parish officials then "deliberately" refused "to grant reasonable modifications to that code" that would allow the homes to open.
The state then denied the owners licenses to operate the group homes because the law requires such homes to be in compliance with local zoning laws.
St. Bernard Parish Council members did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday, nor had they commented when The New Orleans Advocate wrote about the 2017 lawsuit.
Officials have, however, disputed the discrimination claims in public meetings, saying that the owners could have chosen to open group homes in other areas of the parish.
Residents who attended the council meetings also voiced objections to the homes.
"Comments from the public included: 'Can't they put it somewhere else?'; 'We're taxpayers, this is our neighborhood'; and 'This group home has nothing in common with any single-family residential house in this neighborhood,' " the 2017 lawsuit said.
There are only 13 group homes operating throughout the state that serve children with disabilities in the same way as the homes proposed in St. Bernard would, officials said.
"It's hard enough for individuals with disabilities to find adequate places to live without having the development of housing that meets their needs intentionally blocked," said Anna María Farías, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity.
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