A for-profit drug rehabilitation center that was denied a special use permit to continue operating a group home in West Town filed a lawsuit in federal court against the City of Chicago for “discriminatory” zoning practices, asking the court to reverse the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision, which they claim was improperly influenced by Ald. Joe Moreno (1).

In May 2015, the Zoning Board of Appeals denied A Fresh Start Sober Living’s request for a special use permit to establish a “community home” in a single family home the company leased in August 2013. The home at 530 N. Marshfield Ave. is located in Ald. Moreno’s ward and is zoned for residential use. The suit claims ZBA’s decision to deny the permit violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, because it prevented housing for individual residents of the program who are recovering from alcoholism and substance abuse.

According to the lawsuit filed in Federal Court on Thursday, the plaintiffs allege that once neighbors became aware of the rehabilitation center in 2013, they began a “campaign of harassing behavior” against tenants. For two years, the lawsuit claims, neighbors would “hurl insults, call the residents names, often of a vile nature, make racially charged comments, and threaten the residents with bodily harm.”

Two years later, A Fresh Start Sober Living applied for a special use permit with ZBA, the lawsuit notes, after being told by Buildings Commissioner Judith Frydland, with the city’s Law Department at the time, that only eight residents, plus staff, would be allowed to live in the home. Any effort to increase the bed count would require a special use permit establishing a community group home. Zoning Administrator Patti Scudiero is also named in the lawsuit.

The company applied for the permit, and at that May 28, 2015 ZBA meeting, the Board spent nearly four hours hearing testimony on the proposed expansion of the group home. The company’s president, Leonid Goldfarb, testified that his company operates eleven group homes in Chicago for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. The homes don’t accept insurance or offer on-site treatment, none of the staff are trained medical professionals, and the weekly cost of renting a room ranges from $175 to $300, Goldfarb said.

The expansion was necessary to help their mission of “saving people’s lives” because recovering addicts who live in a communal setting are less likely to relapse, Goldfarb continued. He was represented by former Zoning Committee Chairman William J.P. Banks and received support from Robin Belleau, the Executive Director of the Illinois Lawyer’s Assistant Program, which houses many of its law students, lawyers, and judges recovering from alcohol and drug addiction at Fresh Start sites.

But during the lengthy cross-examination and public comment portion of the meeting, a coalition of neighborhood residents, who had created their own legal defense fund, raised safety and legal concerns. They accused the applicant of running the facility like a hostel, underreporting the number of occupants living in the building, and lying about safety measures that had been put in place. The resident group submitted evidence alleging rampant drug use by tenants, police reports that had been filed against residents over the year, and pictures of abandoned cars they believe were left by former tenants.

Ald. Moreno also spoke in opposition. He said while he is usually a proponent of these kinds of facilities, he could not support the applicant because they did not proactively seek his support when they first opened their doors. Part of Moreno’s testimony is mentioned in the lawsuit, as is a letter supporting Moreno’s opposition from neighboring Ald. Scott Waguespack (32). The plaintiff’s attorneys argue that it was this unfavorable testimony that led the Zoning Board to reject the permit.

“On the basis of denying the special use permit application was the opposition to it by Alderman Moreno. The reliance on whether an Alderman approves or opposes an application is part of the BZA’s [sic] unwritten de facto policy of denying applications that are opposed by the Aldermen for that particular ward,” the lawsuit claims, in addition to adding other reasons the board rejected the permit, including neighborhood opposition, and that the entity “was putting profits before helping the recovering alcoholics and substance abuser residents.”

Because of this denial, the West Town location closed, and the company is seeking damages. The company has asked for a declaratory judgement to reverse ZBA’s ruling, and pay for all associated attorney fees.