The Arc of Delaware and its counsel Relman, Dane & Colfax, The Arc of the United States, and Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. are thrilled to announce the recent settlement of The Arc of Delaware’s disability discrimination complaint against Sugar Maple Farms Property Owners’ Association, Inc. (SMFPOA). That complaint, filed in March 2015 with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Delaware Division of Human Relations (DHR), sought a declaration that SMFPOA violated the Fair Housing Act when it refused to approve The Arc of Delaware’s acquisition of property meant to house four individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) in a single family home integrated within the community. The complaint sought damages to compensate for the loss of housing opportunities and for violations of the federal and Delaware Fair Housing Acts due to disability discrimination. After DHR issued a finding of discrimination in March 2016, SMFPOA agreed to settle the case and has entered into a Conciliation Agreement with DHR, HUD, and The Arc of Delaware as of May 26, 2016.
“This case shows the importance of vigorously enforcing the Fair Housing Act,” noted Michael Allen, a partner with Relman, Dane & Colfax. “Although the Act has prohibited disability discrimination for nearly 30 years, we still need to fight every day to redeem the promise of community living for people with disabilities.”
In July 2014, Terry Olson, Executive Director, submitted a bid on behalf of The Arc of Delaware for a lot owned by SMFPOA. The Arc of Delaware intended to build a single family house in a Milford, Delaware residential subdivision with 65 other lots. His offer was accepted by the seller contingent on SMFPOA’s approval of the sale. However, once SMFPOA learned that residents with I/DD would be living there, it told Mr. Olson that such use was barred by its covenants and also expressed concerns about the amount of parking that would be required by the residents’ support staff.
Mr. Olson tried to explain that The Arc of Delaware’s use was protected by the Fair Housing Act and offered to accommodate the extra parking needs while maintaining a uniform appearance within the community. He also offered to give SMFPOA members a tour of a similar home in the area in order to allay any concerns about daily operations. Shortly thereafter, The Arc of Delaware received a letter from SMFPOA reiterating its position that the sale was not approved because it would violate SMFPOA’s covenants and suggesting that allowing people with I/DD into the community would reduce property values and disturb the “quiet enjoyment” of neighbors. The loss of the property and subsequent delay in state funding have deprived The Arc of Delaware and its clients of at least four community-based housing opportunities.
The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHAA) makes it unlawful to “make unavailable or deny” a dwelling because of disability as well as to refuse to make “reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford such person equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.” Federal courts have consistently held that community supported housing for unrelated individuals with I/DD does not constitute a “businesses” and does not violate “single family” restrictions, and Delaware law expressly recognizes such housing as “single family” properties for zoning purposes. Further, the courts recognize that most discriminatory remarks are made in coded language, such as the need to “maintain property value.”
Once the complaints had been filed, DHR performed an investigation and issued a finding of discrimination in March 2016. Subsequently, SMFPOA agreed to settle the case. Among other things, the Conciliation Agreement requires SMFPOA to:
- Apply the same terms and conditions of rental to anyone occupying its properties without regard to disability or any other protected class;
- Provide written compliance reports to DHR and/or HUD when requested;
- Allow HUD and DHR to inspect the premises at any time within one year of the agreement;
- Notify its members and residents in writing of rules, policies, and practices relating to its non-discrimination policy and to prominently display the Equal Housing Opportunity logo within any relevant advertisements it distributes;
- Ensure that all of its current board members receive comprehensive training on the Fair Housing Act within 90 days of signing the agreement and that all future board members receive such training within 30 days of their election;
- Pay The Arc of Delaware $55,000 in damages, including attorneys’ fees and costs.
Mr. Olson remarked: “It is challenging enough in Delaware for individuals with I/DD to find affordable housing in the community. When you add discrimination to the mix, it makes it nearly impossible. This victory will help ensure that individuals with disabilities in Delaware will have the same rights as other citizens to live in the community of their choice.”
Shira Wakschlag, Staff Attorney with The Arc of the United States, noted: “For more than 65 years, The Arc has sought to enforce and protect the human and civil rights of individuals with I/DD by working to ensure those with disabilities are able to live in the community free from discrimination and institutional settings. Without the vigorous enforcement of state and federal disability rights laws in instances of discrimination such as this one, this fundamental right would be eroded.”
Relman, Dane & Colfax, a civil rights law firm based in Washington, D.C., served as lead counsel on the case, with The Arc of the United States and Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. serving as co-counsel.
The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country, including The Arc of Delaware, promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.