"We're really happy with where they're going," says AARP Foundation attorney Dara Smith.
by Jan Schlain
From the September, 2019 issue
Smith is speaking about Lurie Terrace, the senior high-rise on Huron just west of downtown. Last year, the foundation joined Legal Services of South Central Michigan and the U-M clinical law program in accusing the nonprofit of discriminating against handicapped tenants ("The Lurie Terrace Lawsuit," January).
The suit centered on an autistic resident, Clark Cooper. In 2004, when he moved in, Cooper was given small tasks--dropping off newspapers, picking up recycling--that helped him connect with other tenants. But as he aged, management alleged, his behavior became scarier. Two years ago, they asked his family to enroll him in a day program to occupy some of his time--or to move him out.
Lurie Terrace's board of directors had always claimed the right to evict tenants they judged unable to live independently, and had recently removed a lease requirement that they show cause for eviction or nonrenewal. Though rarely used--a PR rep told the Observer they hadn't evicted anyone in at least twenty-five years--it was a serious enough threat that Cooper's family moved him to a private senior residence, American House.
The suit charged Lurie Terrace's board and then-manager with violating the federal Fair Housing Act and Michigan's Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act and Consumer Protection Act. Cooper's chores, they argued, were not a favor granted by a charity--they were a legally mandated accommodation for his disability.
Both sides conducted discovery and deposed potential witnesses. Yet the settlement disclosed in June was so simple that it fit on a single page. The board, emails Legal Services' Libby Benton, will no longer "determine whether a tenant can 'live independently' or 'live there safely.' Under the terms of the amended lease, the Board may terminate a tenancy and seek to evict the tenant if the tenant 'is a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals,' or if the 'tenancy would result in substantial physical damage to the property itself or the property of others.'"
That language is taken straight
from the federal Fair Housing Act. But the plaintiffs' claim that Cooper's tasks were a "required accommodation" has vanished, and Cooper himself will not be returning. "I'm happy to tell you that he is very happy where he's living now, at American House, and he's going to stay," says AARP's Smith.
Like Smith, Benton is pleased with the settlement: "Lurie Terrace has adopted written policies and procedures that represent the best practices for maintaining nondiscriminatory housing and policies and practices [that] articulate that Lurie Terrace welcomes and guarantees reasonable accommodations for tenants with disabilities," she writes.
The parties won't say anything more about the settlement. "We really do want to focus on the future," says AARP Foundation senior attorney Susan Silverstein. But a reference to additional, undisclosed terms suggests that the plaintiffs may also have won their demand that Lurie Terrace cover Cooper's much higher cost of living at American House. Reflecting its nonprofit mission and paid-off mortgage, Lurie Terrace units start at about $600 a month--including fifteen meals a month in the top-floor dining room.
Dickinson Wright's Mark Heusel, senior counsel for the defendants, is less thrilled with the outcome. "The two net results of the lawsuit are that we agreed to remove the term 'independent' and we adopted additional formal written policies and procedures that represent best practices," he says. While "those are important policies and procedures for any housing community to have," he adds, "I firmly believe that Lurie Terrace did not violate any laws, and did the best that it could under very difficult circumstances."
Lurie Terrace is "an apartment building serving an aging population with all kinds of individual circumstances," Heusel says. "Some may be disabled. Some may be challenged in other areas ... The reality is, how do you deal with that aging population? That challenge remains today."
One of the hardest decisions for aging seniors is to recognize when they can no longer live independently. In the past, the Lurie Terrace board saw its role as helping them make that decision. Now, if family and friends don't step up, their only recourse will be the government--either through eviction or putting people under public care. "In situations where it appears the tenant may pose a severe threat to themselves ... we would all assume that Adult Protective Services would become involved," Benton writes.
Lurie Terrace leasing specialist Bill Campbell says the settlement hasn't changed his work at all--"I always treat everybody the same." But he understands the challenge. In a past life, as a fundraiser for Meals on Wheels, he "called on a lot of senior housing. And there was a woman at Presbyterian Villages [who] said to me, 'Bill, the hardest thing to do is to be able to make a decision when you still can.'"
"It's rough getting old," he says.
Campbell tells new tenants, "We provide zero services. Zero. It's up to them" to arrange any support services they need.
Lurie Terrace still has a wait list, Campbell says, but "the wait list for a couple is a lot shorter than for single people." He wants to spread the word that they're looking.
The only requirements: "You have to be over sixty-two, a nonsmoker, and earn three times what the rent is."
[Originally published in September, 2019.]
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