The federal government is suing Fort Worth for failing to provide reasonable accommodations to the owner of a group home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Ebby’s Place — a group home for up to eight individuals who have completed a 30-day drug or alcohol treatment program, pay rent and sign a contract to follow house rules — asked Fort Worth to make an exception in its zoning rules and allow up to eight unrelated people to live in the single-family-zoned home in the 6200 block of Granite Creek Drive in northwest Fort Worth.
The maximum number of unrelated people who can live in a home in single family-zoned area in most of Fort Worth is five.
The Fort Worth City Council unanimously voted against the zoning request and Councilmen Dennis Shingleton and Danny Scarth — Scarth is also partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair — said in the December 2012 meeting that allowing just the five unrelated people was a “reasonable” accommodation because of the parking congestion with too many adults in the house and the small lot size.
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“While I’m certainly not an attorney nor an expert on alcohol or drug addiction, I do know a little something about having a disability and I know what it means to have reasonable accommodations,” Scarth said during the 2012 meeting.
“I think it is reasonable that some of our historic buildings in Fort Worth aren’t required to be ADA compliant today. It doesn't make it convenient for me to get in, but it is reasonable. … In this case I believe we are being reasonable.”
But a statement from the Justice Department, which filed the lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, says Fort Worth discriminated against persons with disabilities and the city failed to grant reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act seek to ensure that individuals with disabilities can live in communities of their choice without facing discrimination,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta of the Civil Rights Division in a statement. “We will continue our vigorous enforcement efforts to make certain that persons with disabilities are granted their rights under federal law.”
Michelle Gutt, communications and public engagement director, said the city “is confident in its position and will defend the lawsuit.”
‘Just a mess’
Shingleton, who represents the area and made the motion to deny the zoning case in 2012, said he could not comment on legalities of the case, but said the family-oriented neighborhood is a “distasteful” location for the community home.
“They didn’t have enough on-street parking, off-street parking. It was just a mess,” Shingleton said in an interview Wednesday. “All of these recovering men living in this house, it was a poor fit for the neighborhood. And we did our best to reason with the owner, but he felt that we were not giving these eight to 10 men proper accommodations in living there.”
The lawsuit was filed after the owner of Ebby’s Place, Ben Patterson, filed a complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Patterson argued at the city hearings that he needed the eight residents to make the house financially sustainable, and said the group members depend on each other for accountability.
Patterson did not comment for the story, but his attorney, Steven Polin out of Washington, D.C., said the residents need reasonable accommodations to recover together and become productive members of society.
“People have a difficult time seeing why this is discriminatory — all you need to do is substitute race for handicapped and you see why,” Polin said.
The suit demands Fort Worth make reasonable accommodation to Ebby’s Place and allow up to eight people to live in the home. It also seeks monetary damages of an undisclosed amount to compensate victims and payment of a civil penalty.
Patterson has received seven citations for a total of $7,400 in fines. Polin said the home currently houses up to eight people.
Under the ADA, casual drug use is not a disability, but people who are addicted to drugs, have a history of drug addiction or have an impairment under the law because of their addiction are considered disabled. Addicts cannot currently be using illegal drugs to be disabled under the act.
“While we appreciate the City’s cooperation with this investigation, its refusal, as a governmental entity, to consider those recovering from drug or alcohol addiction as persons with disabilities is at odds with federal law,” said Acting U.S. Attorney John Parker of the Northern District of Texas in a statement. “Simply put, the residents of Ebby’s Place are deserving of the same protections as persons with any other disability.”
Caty Hirst, 817-390-7984