U.S. District Judge Victor Bolden of the District of Connecticut (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM)
A community services group that places mentally disabled residents in housing has filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Cromwell and its leaders for allegedly “fanning the flames” of opposition to its single-family residence to the point it was forced to shut its doors.
The lawsuit claims the town used zoning and tax laws, a cease and desist order, and public pressure to force out the house and its occupants. An attorney representing plaintiffs Gilead Community Services Inc. and the Rainbow Housing Corp. called the issue a blatant example of discrimination.
“This is about the stereotyping of people with disabilities. It’s very clear,” said one of Gilead’s attorneys, Greg Kirschner, of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center Inc. “There is a belief by some that people with disabilities are inherently dangerous and a threat to the community.”
In the 24-page lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut in Bridgeport, Gilead takes aim at Mayor Enzo Faienza, Police Chief and Town Manager Anthony Salvatore, and then-zoning enforcement officer Jillian Massey, who no longer works for the town.
The town is accused of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.
According to the lawsuit, the town called a public hearing on the home even though it was exempt from zoning laws and public hearing requirements. The town also issued a cease and desist order wrongly claiming the house was operating without proper zoning permits, and denied Gilead a property tax exemption it was entitled to, the lawsuit claims.
At one point, Faienza suggested group homes for people with disabilities ought to be limited “the way package [liquor] stores are limited in a town,” according to the lawsuit.
Faienza and Massey couldn’t be reached for comment. Salvatore declined to comment.
Town officials did everything they could to close down the house, located on Reiman Drive, even though “the law is clear and it says that people with disabilities have a right to live in the housing of their choice,” Kirschner said.
The house was supposed to serve as a home to six men, but it ultimately closed after just two months of operating with only two occupants on July 1, 2015.
Cromwell town attorney Kari Olson declined to comment on the allegations, but said “we wholeheartedly disagree with the claims in the lawsuit and feel the claims are not justified, especially with respect to the individual defendants that have been named.”
Gilead seeks compensation tied to its purchase and renovation of the home.
Gilead purchased the 3,000-square-foot home for $350,000, according to the lawsuit. It spent almost $150,000 preparing the house for occupancy but had to sell it for $280,000. Gilead also lost a $900,000 annual contract with the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services when the house closed.
In addition to Kirschner, Gilead is represented by Michael Allen and Yiyang Wu, of Relman, Dane & Colfax, PLLC in Washington, D.C.
The case is scheduled to be heard in front of Judge Victor A. Bolden.
Robert Storace can be reached at 203-437-5950 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. .