Ability Housing suing city over Springfield project

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  • | 12:00 p.m. November 20, 2015
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An almost two-year battle with the city and Springfield residents over a homeless-housing project in the historic neighborhood has Ability Housing of Northeast Florida turning to the courts.

The nonprofit, which creates permanent housing for homeless families and individuals, wanted to purchase and renovate a 12-unit apartment complex in Springfield. It would have been mainly for disabled veterans, the nonprofit said, because of its proximity to the Veterans Administration health clinic.

Ability Housing hasn’t been able to do that, though. It’s been rejected twice by the city, the last time in October.

The nonprofit filed suit in federal court Wednesday claiming violations of the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Unfortunately, it’s come to this point,” said Shannon Nazworth, the nonprofit’s executive director. “We really did hope we weren’t going to have to do this.”

Ability Housing secured almost $1.4 million in a forgivable loan through the Florida Housing Finance Corp. for the project. It just needed to show it had obtained approvals for the renovations and the building permit.

However, there was pushback from the Springfield community when residents caught wind of what was being planned.

At an April 2014 community meeting, close to 200 showed up to talk about the project. Many were angry. Some said they weren’t properly notified. Others didn’t want the project in the neighborhood at all.

Springfield’s zoning code was changed more than a decade ago to not allow group homes because there already was an influx of them from the rebuilding of the blighted neighborhood. The project, Ability Housing said, was not a group home — it was multifamily dwellings.

According to the suit filed Wednesday, that backlash influenced decision-making at City Hall. After initially being cleared by the city Planning Department, the process was “subverted” and changed, the lawsuit said.

The city “deliberately ignored and refused to consider” protections provided to disabled people when it caved to pressure from Springfield residents, according to the suit.

After a rejection last year, the nonprofit tried to receive the needed approvals again July 1. The city stuck to the changed interpretation last year, issuing a final denial last month.

Ability Housing eventually lost the state funding and had spent $124,000 of its own money planning the project.

The nonprofit wants the city to cover those costs and pay legal fees.

It also wants the city to be found to have illegally discriminated against disabled people and find that the Springfield overlay violates ADA regulations.

Nazworth said the state “bent over backward” with extensions on the funding, but it’s now gone.

She’s disappointed by that, she said, but more so that the 12 veterans and disabled won’t be able to be served for now.

“If we’re not going to fight for their rights, who will?” she asked.

Marsha Oliver, spokeswoman for Mayor Lenny Curry, said the city does not comment on pending litigation.

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