A nonprofit in a legal battle with Sandy Springs over its transitional housing condos has sued the city, saying it’s trying to push out minorities and disabled people. The nonprofit, Mary Hall Freedom House, has been embroiled in legal challenges brought by the city for more than a year, alleging it is violating zoning rules by operating a drug treatment facility.
“This case arises out of the city of Sandy Springs and its highest officials’ blatant discrimination against homeless women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and/or mental health disorders,” the lawsuit complaint says.
The city, which once honored MHFH’s founder Lucy Hall with its Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, now finds itself being sued by her for alleged racial discrimination, including a top city official referring to residents as “these people.” The city is defending its citations, saying they are based only on MHFH’s alleged violations of the code.
“The complaint against Mary Hall Freedom House and [the housing site] Freedom Village deals directly with the organizations’ violations of the city’s zoning laws and nothing more,” city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said. “As our concerns with these violations are now within the courts, we will wait for the judge’s decision before any further comment,” she said in an email.
MHFH, which helps women with homelessness and addiction issues, in 2017 bought more than a third of the 90-unit condo complex at 9400 Roberts Drive, drawing criticism from other residents and legal challenges from the city.
The city has issued three rounds of citations to MHFH, alleging it violates the city’s zoning code and lacks proper licensing. MHFH pleaded no contest to the first citation, but the next round was dismissed by a judge, the lawsuit said. MHFH had a city court hearing Dec. 12 for the most recent citations.
The citations allege the nonprofit is operating drug treatment facilities out of the condos. The nonprofit says that it only houses its clients there and treatment takes place elsewhere.
To help with their defense against the citations, MHFH had enlisted a public relations firm and former Atlanta Mayor, Congressman and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who visited the condos Dec. 3 and spoke in support of the nonprofit.
Hall’s operation once received praise from the city, which gave her the city’s Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award in 2009, but the relationship has since soured. Sandy Springs also provided funding for MFHF for several years, but stopped in 2016.
The lawsuit is against the city, Mayor Rusty Paul, City Attorney Dan Lee, Community Development Director Ginger Sottile and City Solicitor William Riley. The plaintiffs are Hall; MHFH; Freedom Village, a holding company for the condos; and two clients who live in the condos.
The complaint, which was filed in federal court Dec. 11, claims the city does not want MHFH operating because it brings and treats women who the city consider “less desirable.” It argues the city has violated the American’s with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act by targeting minorities and people with disabilities, mental health or substance abuse disorders.
“For the past year, the city, led by its Mayor Rusty Paul and City Attorney Daniel Lee, has engaged in a campaign to rid the city of Mary Hall Freedom House and Freedom Village and the women they serve through repeated and groundless city code citations and prosecutions purportedly for violations of the city’s land use ordinances,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit alleges that city staff made discriminatory statements to MHFH. In August, Sottile is alleged to have told Hall, “You wouldn’t want your daughter living around these people.”
The lawsuit also alleges that City Councilmember Jody Reichel, who is not named in the lawsuit, asked a MHFH board member “how he would like it if Mary Hall Freedom House was located in Dunwoody where he lived.”
The city’s citations allege that MHFH is operating a drug treatment facility at the condos and office at 8995 Roswell Road. Drug treatment falls under social services, which are not allowed in the zoning the properties are in, Kraun said.
The lawsuit argues that the city has violated double jeopardy by citing MHFH multiple times for violating the same rules, and alleged that the city is applying those rules unequally. The lawsuit named four other drug treatment programs in Sandy Springs that are not zoned for social services programs but have not received citations.
“Defendants intentionally failed to impartially, uniformly, and equally apply the city of Sandy Springs’s zoning ordinance to white, non-disabled residents of the City,” the lawsuit said.
MHFH also alleges the city changed part of its zoning code specifically to target the nonprofit by adding “rehabilitation centers and community living arrangements” to the social services category. But even if it is found to be providing social services, MHFH argues it would be grandfathered into the old zoning code because it was operating previously to the new one taking effect in 2017.
“This change was designed specifically to close a known gap in the ordinance and attempt to ensure it caught Mary Hall Freedom House and Freedom Village,” the lawsuit said.