Lydia House dispute heard in federal court

A federal court is deciding whether the city of Minneapolis can concentrate supportive-housing programs in a few neighborhoods. Judge James Rosenbaum heard arguments July 19 in Citizens for a Balanced Community v. Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation.

Rosenbaum will also decide if the city justly protected disabled citizens’ rights when the City Council approved the Lydia Apartments project despite city ordinances requiring quarter-mile spacing between supportive housing projects.

The foundation bought the old nursing home at 1920 LaSalle Ave. and proposed developing apartments for 40 recently homeless people, including those with mental illness and chemical dependency. The foundation would provide on-site case managers and a half-time employment specialist.

Some in the Whittier and Stevens Square/Loring Heights neighborhoods objected to the project, saying the area has too many supportive-housing programs. Mike Freeman, attorney for those challenging the project, said Lydia Apartments violates a city spacing ordinance.

City attorneys argued that the anti-discrimination U.S. Fair Housing Act overrides the ordinance and the City Council’s decision was rational and reasonable.

Mary Yeager, the foundation’s attorney, argued the city’s spacing ordinance is unconstitutional. Spacing ordinances are for undesirable uses, she said. It was inappropriate to apply the law to housing for those with disabilities.

Yeager said Lydia Apartments was neither a group home nor congregate living. Other apartments offer support services, she said; residents of the Calhoun Beach Club have laundry and valet parking services available, for instance. "There would never be an ordinance that wealthy white people can’t live within a specified distance," she said.

Yeager also argued that Lydia Apartments opponents did not have legal standing to bring the lawsuit, saying they had not shown any harm or "personalized interest."

"I cannot see how someone can say I am aggrieved because a disabled person lives too close," she said.

Rosenbaum asked Yeager if there was any point at which a neighborhood could say it had too many supportive housing facilities.

Yeager said no — not when that decision would deprive disabled people the right to choose where to live.

"Your argument is that if the disabled want to cluster, they get to?" Rosenbaum asked.

Freeman argued that more supportive housing put "a huge burden on the neighborhood," adding more vulnerable people for criminals to prey on, he said.

Rosenbaum asked Freeman if he had data showing that vulnerable populations increase crime. "It is implicit in your argument; there is little factual support," he said.

Rosenbaum could decide the case based on whether he believes the city acted reasonably in approving the project. He could issue a broader ruling on whether the city’s spacing ordinance is unconstitutional.

He may also do neither. At various points, Rosenbaum asked attorneys, "What if I sit here and do nothing?"

It is unclear when Rosenbaum will rule. One of his staff members declined to give any parameters, saying the judge was under no deadline. Attorneys suggested rulings typically take 30 to 60 days.