ACLU of WA Challenges Zoning Ordinance that Bars Community Services for Low-Income People

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
January 15, 2003 12:00 am

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PASCO, WA– The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today filed a lawsuit on behalf of a local nonprofit agency challenging a city zoning ordinance that prohibits community services for low-income residents from operating in the downtown area.

“Pasco has discriminated against low-income people by adopting an ordinance designed to prevent them from living in an area of the city,” said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director for the ACLU of Washington. “The ordinance primarily affects Latino workers who have a right to housing in the community.”

The case, SeaMar Farmworker and Community Housing Development vs. City of Pasco, is filed on behalf of SeaMar Farmworker and Community Housing Development Association, a nonprofit agency barred by the ordinance from converting a vacant motel in Pasco into inexpensive housing for farmworkers.

SeaMar provides health care and social services primarily to Pasco’s Latino community and has formed a nonprofit subsidiary to create farmworker housing in Pasco. In April 2000, SeaMar purchased a vacant motel in Pasco, now known as the SeaMar Motel and have made plans to convert it into farmworker housing.

SeaMar is buying another vacant motel called the Travel Inn that it plans to convert in a similar fashion. In May 2000, the City of Pasco instituted a moratorium on applications for any permits or licenses for community service facilities located in downtown Pasco. The City amended its zoning code in December 2001 and has refused to process SeaMar’s building permit application.

The amended zoning code creates a district in the central business area from which most community services that serve the poor are prohibited. The district includes the sites of the SeaMar projects. The ban also includes “transient hotels or motels” such as the ones SeaMar plans to build.

According to the ACLU’s complaint, the City’s justification for eliminating these community services is that they “make the central business area of the City ? less desirable or attractive to the public ? “

The City’s goal of eliminating social services that attract poor people as clients violates the Constitution, the ACLU said in legal papers. In a similar case (City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 1985), the U.S. Supreme Court found that a zoning ordinance that furthers no compelling government interest other than community prejudices violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. That case involved a zoning ordinance aimed at barring a group home for the mentally retarded. In overturning the ordinance, the court noted that it “rests on a bare desire to treat the retarded as outsiders, pariahs who do not belong in the community.”

The ACLU lawsuit also challenges the ordinance for being unconstitutionally vague. The ordinance defines a transient hotel as one whose clients “may rely” on “charitable assistance” for “support.” This could conceivably cover any hotel since all are willing to rent rooms to people who “may” rely on charitable assistance, so long as they can cover their bills. “Charitable assistance” is also undefined in the ordinance and could apply to people living on grants, gifts from relatives, or money from nonprofit organizations such as churches.

The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the City to process SeaMar’s building permit for the housing project. The lawsuit was filed in Franklin County Superior Court.

Michael Gendler, an attorney with the firm Gendler & Mann and chair of the ACLU Legal Committee, is handling the case.

The ACLU legal complaint is online at /node/35111

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