Lexington shelter ordinance, criticized as discriminating against poor, under review

bmusgrave@herald-leader.comMay 19, 2014 

The city is taking a second look at a controversial ordinance for day services for the homeless that housing advocates and others contend is discriminatory to the poor.

Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city, said Charlie Lanter, the new director of the Office of Homelessness, was examining the day shelter ordinance that was passed in October. The ordinance requires a special permit for facilities operating during daylight hours if they serve people with "limited financial resources, including people who are homeless."

The ordinance applies to organizations that are new or moving to a different location. It does not apply to current service providers.

"The Office of Homelessness plans to review the adult day shelter ordinance to determine if improvements can be made to it," Straub said. "Any suggested improvements would be forwarded to the Urban County Council."

The council would have to approve changes to the ordinance.

Reviewing the ordinance is part of the city's efforts to resolve a fair-housing investigation by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD. The Lexington Fair Housing Council and organizers of the Community Inn filed a complaint alleging federal fair housing violations over whether the homeless shelter on Winchester Road could remain at its location. Federal fair housing laws prohibit discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.

HUD has amended its complaint to include concerns about the day shelter ordinance, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader.

Those concerns include whether the city was using zoning ordinances to discriminate against the poor or homeless. Many homeless people are minorities who are protected under federal fair housing laws, the complaint alleges.

As a way to settle the dispute, the city has offered to review the day shelter ordinance and waive fees associated with filing for a special permit — called a conditional use permit — if the Community Inn wants to apply for a permit to open a new location on Spruce Street.

A conditional use permit must be approved by the city's Board of Adjustment. Neighbors also would be notified.

The controversy surrounding the day shelter ordinance was driven by Community Inn's search for a new location.

Ginny Ramsey, co-founder of the Community Inn and the Catholic Action Center, a day shelter for the homeless, said that during negotiations over whether the Community Inn could remain at its Winchester Road location, the city had proposed more than 70 locations that were appropriately zoned for a night shelter. If it's appropriately zoned for a night shelter, Ramsey would not have to ask the city for permission to move her operations to a new location.

But Ramsey wanted to consolidate the Community Inn and Catholic Action Center in one location. Because of the new day shelter ordinance, that meant she had to apply for a special permit for the Spruce Street location or any new location, she said.

Ramsey said late last week that she was going to apply for a conditional use permit for the Spruce Street location. But Ramsey said she still was trying to figure out how to apply because her organization did not own the property, which was formerly the mayor's training center and is now owned by Central Christian Church.

"We are still trying to work it out with the owners," Ramsey said.

Art Crosby, executive director of the Lexington Fair Housing Council, and Ramsey said they were going to wait and see what changes, if any, the city makes to the day shelter ordinance before deciding whether to accept the city's settlement offer.

"We will still have issues if they make you go through a different process if you are serving the poor or the homeless," Crosby said.

Ramsey has said the city has turned down the Community Inn for three locations. The city counters that Ramsey has not filed applications for permits or zoning changes on any of the three locations she has proposed.

In a letter to HUD dated May 13, Roger Wright, an attorney for the city, said city officials have worked with the Community Inn to find a new home.

"The day shelter ordinance cannot be construed as an impediment to relocating (the Community Inn) because CI has never asked for, or been denied, permission to operate a day shelter at any location," Wright wrote.

But Ramsey said the city was trying to make the process more difficult for organizations that serve the poor or homeless by requiring a conditional use permit.

"To exclude the poor from all zones is discriminatory if you are basing it on people's ability to pay," Ramsey said.

She also said the Community Inn had proposed moving to a building owned by the city on Georgetown Street that is being used now by the Community Action Council and is appropriately zoned for a night shelter. The city told her the building could not be used for a homeless shelter.

"They did turn me down for Georgetown Street," Ramsey said.

Straub said the city thought it would be too costly to remodel for a homeless shelter.

"The site was carefully considered but was rejected in part due to the expense of remodeling the building," she said.

Straub said the city also thinks it has tried to work with all the parties involved, and "considering our efforts to resolve the matter, we think the HUD complaint should be dropped."

The American Civil Liberties Union also has expressed concern about the day shelter ordinance. Amber Duke, a spokeswoman for the ACLU, said it had filed an Open Records Act request to the city for additional information about the ordinance.

"We've filed the open records request and our legal program's examination of the ordinance is ongoing," Duke said.

The day shelter ordinance was passed after neighbors complained when New Life Day Center opened in December 2011 at 224 North Martin Luther King Boulevard in the former Fraternal Order of Police hall. Some neighbors were angry because the day shelter opened before they were notified.

Beth Musgrave: (859) 231-3205. Twitter:@HLCityhall.

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