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St. Bernard Parish to pay $1 million, change zoning rules on group homes in legal settlement

The Advocate - 5/22/2019

May 22-- May 22--Dionna Richardson expected some pushback when she tried to start a group home for disabled teens in 2015 at a house in Violet. But Richardson, who grew up in St. Bernard Parish, said she was caught off guard by just how far local officials would go to stop her.

Around the same time, another local woman, Cathy Moore, had an idea to run a similar group home in Chalmette.

Parish officials dug in their heels with her, too, changing local zoning laws to effectively block their plans. The group homes, parish officials argued, could just as easily operate elsewhere.

"I was thinking at the very beginning, once they learned what they were doing was not right, that at some point they would basically step back and let us open," Richardson said.

But they didn't, and it just cost taxpayers a bundle.

The St. Bernard Parish Council agreed in closed session late Tuesday to endorse a settlement of more than $1 million to resolve federal discrimination lawsuits lodged by the two women and the U.S. Department of Justice over allegations of discriminatory housing policies, the plaintiffs' lawyers said.

Though terms of the deal were not yet included in court records, the plaintiffs' lawyers said it includes a $975,000 payout to the two would-be operators for damages and attorneys' fees, as well as $60,000 in civil penalties to the federal government.

DOJ lawyers filed suit in December, throwing the weight of the federal government behind a pending lawsuit that alleged discriminatory stonewalling by the parish over the group homes. U.S. Magistrate Judge Janis van Meerveld merged the two complaints before they were resolved this week.

"Thank goodness we still have federal law," said John Adcock, a New Orleans civil rights attorney who represented the plaintiffs.

"Federal law is the only thing preventing St. Bernard Parish from further segregating their neighborhoods along lines of race, wealth and disability."

The deal specifically requires that Richardson and Moore, the two would-be group home operators, be allowed to open their long-delayed businesses, said attorney Eve Hill, a disability rights advocate and one of their attorneys.

Only a dozen such facilities have launched in Louisiana since the state began licensing them in 2012 under a relatively new therapeutic model for mentally disabled youth. None of those facilities are near St. Bernard Parish.

The settlement also requires the parish to add small group homes to allowable uses in all R-1 and R-2 residential neighborhoods. Hill said the parish must also fix its policy on "reasonable modifications" to zoning ordinances to comply with federal law.

The parish had no such policy, Hill said, before Richardson and Moore each sought approval to house five youths in a 24-hour setting with an on-site psychologist. The council drafted a new policy, then rejected the group-home applications under it, the plaintiffs alleged.

"It's the most obvious case of discrimination I have ever seen in my life," said Hill, a veteran disability rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., who represents the women along with Adcock.

"Enforcing a law that doesn't exist," she added. "Creating a law that's discriminatory. Not complying with the federal law. Just unrepentant discrimination. It's 'We don't want your kids.' To which I respond: These are your kids."

Parish officials could not immediately be reached for comment late Tuesday about the settlement or their endorsement of it in closed session.

The settlement does not require the parish government to admit to any violations of federal disability or housing law, as attorneys for the two women and the Justice Department had alleged.

Now that it's settled, Richardson said she still plans to open the Violet group home, but moving back to the parish is a different story.

"What they did to myself and Ms. Moore," she said, "I don't think St. Bernard Parish would ever be my home again."

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(c)2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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