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Group recovery homes sue Gainesville
City accused of violating fair housing, disabilities acts
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GAINESVILLE — Representatives for the owners of two Gainesville group homes have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Gainesville, claiming the city has discriminated against the occupants by forcing them to move out of their homes in the city.

Steven Polin, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., filed a complaint against Gainesville early last month on behalf of the owners and residents of the Agora House for Men and the Alpha House for Men.

The suit alleges that the city is violating the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by requiring the Agora House and the Alpha House to move from homes on Ivey Terrace, Northside Drive, Riverside Terrace and Hillcrest Avenue.

The Agora House and the Alpha House both provide housing and support for men who are recovering from substance abuse and alcoholism.

Their owners, Harold Hinchman and Ricky Martin, respectively, were ordered to cease and desist operations of their group homes within the city limits after both were denied the permits required to run the group homes in the neighborhoods late last year.

The two face charges in state court for not moving out in the 60-day time frame.

The city says that the two men, by operating their group homes in a residential district without a permit, are violating the city’s code. But Polin alleges that the city’s application of the code violates the Federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act because it discriminates against groups of disabled people "by failing to take into consideration the nature of the disabilities of the residents of the dwelling."

In the complaint filed on Feb. 8, Polin says city officials only voted to deny Hinchman and Martin the permits necessary to operate their homes legally after neighborhood residents expressed their opposition, "which was grounded in prejudice and ... fears about the harm that persons recovering from substance abuse and alcoholism would bring to the neighborhood."

The city amended its land use code in May 2007, changing the definition of a group home from a single household of more than seven unrelated persons to a single household of four or more unrelated persons.

Gainesville’s planning director, Rusty Ligon, said the code has been amended six times since its adoption in July 2005, and amendments are made periodically on an as-needed basis. The definition of "group home" changed with four other items in the May 2007 amendment, Ligon said.

"The fact that they amended their code ... to make it more restrictive for group homes to be in residential zones, and then made all the group homes come in and apply for (special-use) permits and then denied them and told them that they had to leave," said Polin. "I think that’s pretty blatant in terms of Fair Housing Act violations."

In September, Polin sent a letter to then-Gainesville mayor Bob Hamrick, claiming that the city was violating the Fair Housing Act. The city responded six weeks later that all the city’s actions were proper, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says the city’s actions have caused the owners and the residents of the two group homes to live in fear of losing their home, "suffer anxiety, distress, pain, setbacks in their efforts at recovery and other irreparable harm."

"They have no adequate remedy at law," the complaint states.

Gainesville’s City Attorney, James E. "Bubba" Palmour was served with the lawsuit Wednesday, according to court documents. Palmour, or another attorney on the city’s behalf, has 20 days to respond to the allegation.

Calls to Palmour’s law offices were not returned Thursday.

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