On its website, Lurie Terrace is described as a nonprofit, independent living senior housing community for people sixty-two and older, close to downtown. But that doesn’t begin to describe it.

The high-rise at 600 W. Huron was conceived nearly sixty years ago by Shata Ling, a social worker and community organizer who deeply cared about growing old with joy and dignity. Ling founded a senior center to give older people a place to socialize. Then, in 1961, she turned it into Senior Citizens Housing of Ann Arbor. SCHAA borrowed $1.7 million from a new federal program to build a pair of striking hexagonal towers sharing a common service core. Ling named it after her mother, Anna Lurie.

In 1965, the Ann Arbor News reported that rents started at $68 a month for a “bachelor” unit. “On the lobby wall, Ling wrote in Chinese characters, ‘May your years be long in this beautiful place.'”

In the 1970s, the waiting list was ten years long. Demand eased as newer and roomier senior buildings appeared–the smallest units have less than 300 square feet–but it’s still an incredible bargain. Rents start at around $550 a month, including fifteen meals in the community dining room. Ling insisted that be on the eighth floor, so every resident could enjoy breathtaking views of downtown and the westside.

Residents of newer downtown buildings pay several times as much for views like that. But Lurie Terrace paid off its mortgage five years ago, and it’s managed by a board of volunteers who, like Ling, see their work as a community service.

That paternalistic model is being challenged. Lurie Terrace is embroiled in a lawsuit that pits two tenants, one current and one former, and a recently formed tenants association, against SCHAA, its board president Mary Jean Raab, and former building manager Bob Blackburn.

Landlord-tenant disputes are usually like David and Goliath–with the landlord as Goliath. But this time, it’s the plaintiffs who loom large. They’re represented by Legal Services of South Central Michigan with support from the U-M’s clinical law program–and the D.C.-based AARP Foundation.

At the heart of the federal court battle are conflicting views of how Lurie Terrace’s staff and board should relate to their tenants. Should they play the role of a watchful relative, deciding when residents can no longer live independently? Or should they act as a private landlord, staying aloof except in egregious cases–or when they’re required to do something by law?

That conflict is embodied in Clark Cooper. One of the two named plaintiffs, he’s described in the complaint as a seventy-four-year-old man with autism and a hearing impairment.

Autism can make social interactions challenging, and when Cooper moved into Lurie Terrace in 2004, he was given small jobs that would bring him into contact with other residents–he’d deliver their newspapers and pick up their recycling. But according to the complaint, in 2017 he was ordered to stop performing those tasks–and that October, his family moved him out under threat of eviction.

Until recently, Cooper’s older sister, Jane, served on the Lurie Terrace board. She worked at the U-M Institute of Gerontology for years, and seemed just the person to explain how the conflict reached this point. But when I called her, she deferred to her brother’s attorneys. Libby Benton of Legal Services of South Central Michigan later told me that she wasn’t comfortable talking to the press.

On the advice of their own attorneys, the Lurie Terrace staff and board members aren’t talking, either. So questions about how Clark Cooper’s tenancy ended are answered secondhand, through the lawyers.

“There seems to have been management changes,” Benton says. A new manager, Blackburn, was hired, and “the way that Cooper was treated changed.” According to the complaint, he was told to stop running errands and yelled at when he continued to do so. His family was asked to send him to a day program so he wouldn’t be around the building so much; when that didn’t happen, the board voted to evict him, saying that he was no longer capable of living independently.

Cooper’s family then moved him to an independent living apartment on Carpenter Rd. It includes more meals than his contract at Lurie Terrace and a weekly cleaning service–but costs four times as much.

The complaint argues that in pushing out Cooper, Lurie Terrace discriminated against a handicapped resident. The board seems to have regarded his make-work jobs as an act of charity, theirs to give and take away. His lawyers describe them as a legally mandated accommodation for his autism–and say that eliminating them violated his civil rights.

The other named plaintiff, Gartha Parrish, “witnessed SCHAA employees treating residents with disabilities poorly and has talked to residents who feel like they are being pressured to move out because of their disabilities,” the complaint says. After Cooper’s experience, it says, Parrish “fears SCHAA will force her to move and that she will be unable to do so because of her limited income and resources.” Parrish, too, is disabled, by severe arthritis.

The suit alleges that Lurie Terrace’s policies and practices violate the federal Fair Housing Act and Michigan state law, including the Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act and the Michigan Consumer Protection Act. “Civil rights laws ensure that people with disabilities can decide for themselves where and how to live in the community of their choosing,” AARP senior attorney Susan Silverstein declared in a press release when the case was filed.

The third plaintiff is the Lurie Terrace Tenants Association. The complaint describes it as “an organization of current residents dedicated to ensuring, among other things, that the defendants respect the rights of disabled Lurie Terrace residents.” But Lurie Terrace attorney Mark Heusel thinks that for most tenants, the real issue is a new lease introduced in mid 2017.

“Be skeptical when reading complaints,” says Heusel, a member at Dickinson Wright and the defendants’ senior counsel. “Facts have different truths for different people.”

As Heusel reads it, “the lease is the thrust of much of their anger and complaint.” Yet, he says, he doesn’t see any dramatic difference between the old and new leases. He says both allow SCHAA to terminate tenancy if the board of directors decides a resident is “unable to live independently.” They also allow SCHAA to enlist the resident’s emergency contact “to arrange for relocation if it is determined by the [board] that the Resident is unable to live independently.”

The new lease, Heusel says, “is very mild compared to a university lease.” In off-campus housing “if you violate a rule, you can be evicted–not by a board, but a leasing agent makes that determination.”

Heusel says the plaintiffs seem to be “attacking the way we do business, and somehow suggesting that because we changed the lease, now our intent is to run roughshod over residents–and the facts don’t support that.”

But the plaintiffs’ attorneys say that SCHAA’s new lease makes it much easier to remove tenants, because it no longer requires eviction or nonrenewal to be “for cause.” And they say that residents were told that if they refused to sign, they would be evicted–a terrifying threat to those who are living month-to-month on Social Security checks.

Heusel says many tenants signed the new lease without any issues. Others, he says, “felt more comfortable staying with the original lease, and the organization let them do that.” It appears, though, that the option of continuing on the old lease was only offered after residents protested.

As for the charge of discrimination, Heusel says, “we flatly deny all complaints.” He calls the Lurie Terrace board “a group of individuals who have a passion for this mission and are compassionate toward these residents.”

“Someone has to be overseeing the greater welfare of the residents, property, and the individuals they are responsible for,” he says. If the board doesn’t have the right to keep residents safe, he asks, who does?

“The board could just run Lurie Terrace as a standard housing facility and use standard commercial leases with no compassion,” Heusel says. “Clearly that is not where this organization has gone and doesn’t intend to go.”

As for the charge of discriminating against people with handicaps, he says, “there is no intention to discriminate against anyone. It’s an unfounded allegation, and it puts people in a bad light.”

In addition to lawyers, SCHAA hired a PR person, John Truscott. The longtime spokesman for former Republican governor John Engler, he’s not the obvious choice for a liberal town. But with Lurie Terrace’s board and staff staying mum, he tries to help make their case.

Truscott says he toured the building with Raab and another board member, Susan Hinton. “I was amazed,” he says, at the mix of frail elderly people, many using walkers, wheelchairs, or scooters, with active younger ones “almost bouncing out of their apartments,” inviting people to join them on errands or shopping trips.

“There are a lot of people with disabilities that clearly are allowed to live there,” Truscott says. But “when they become a danger or can’t take care of themselves, that’s when it’s recommended that they try to find more suitable living” arrangements.

He says the board members told him that as Cooper aged, “his behaviors began to change.” He was “scaring some of the elderly residents,” Truscott says, by “yelling, because he had no idea what the volume of his voice was.”

He says Cooper also was “letting homeless people in the building. It’s a locked, secure building. He was letting them in, and police were called.

“The board just felt he was becoming a safety issue, not only for himself, but for other tenants, and that an alternative arrangement would be better for him and the residents.”

Truscott says the board members told him that “there have been times when they’ve had to go to court, but it has been to get a judicial intervention to get somebody help, either they didn’t have a family member, or there wasn’t family close that could take care of them.” But they don’t go to court to remove tenants: “At least in the last twenty-five years, they have not evicted anybody.”

As their lawyer and PR guy tell it, Lurie Terrace is run by well-meaning people trying to do what’s best for their residents. As the tenants’ lawyers tell it, they’re just another landlord–and out of touch with their legal obligations.

“This is not comparable to Glacier Hills,” says Legal Services’ Libby Benton, the tenants’ lead attorney. “This is more akin to living in a McKinley property. It’s a landlord tenant issue.

“We’re seeking to hold them to the legal standards that apply to all other private landlords; we’re not asking them to become an assisted living facility. We’re not asking them to provide these services. We’re just asking them to not discriminate and to follow the law.”

And the law, Benton says, prohibits them from pushing out people with handicaps based on a subjective opinion about their capabilities. “They just said [to Cooper], “you can’t live independently.”

AARP Foundation attorney Dara Smith, who with Silverstein is serving as cocounsel in the case, says that in its filings so far, Lurie Terrace has “never given any indication that anyone, including Mr. Cooper, was actually a danger to anyone or harmed anyone. Presumably, that would have violated some other provision of the lease–other than their opinion that he couldn’t live independently.”

One reason the foundation got involved in the case, the lawyers say, is its potential broader impact. Landlords, they say, have neither the right nor the responsibility to decide, “as people age, how long they can live in their homes and community.”

Silverstein points out that it’s been thirty years since the federal Fair Housing Act was amended to bar discrimination based on disability. “If we resolve this case,” she says, “we want to make sure that other landlords will understand the outcome and learn their responsibilities under the law.”

Lurie Terrace could still try to prove that Cooper’s behavior warranted eviction. But that is likely to be a long, costly process, and a painful one for all concerned.

Truscott says the demands of the lawsuit are already straining the system that has helped keep Lurie Terrace affordable. “Mary Jean [Raab] has been spending forty hours a week” on legal and building issues, he says. “It has become too much.”

The volunteer board members are “not being paid for this, nor are they professional property managers,” he says. “And one of the things that they’re considering is bringing in a property management company to deal with this, because … they’re pretty broken up about it. It’s a very difficult emotional time for them.”

If the board does step back and hire professional managers, Truscott says, “then that cost is passed on to the tenants. But they pretty much have concluded that that is the route that they will likely go.”

The risks and costs have both sides hoping to reach a resolution. Benton says that while the tenants have asked for a jury trial, “we want to fix these policies.” A mediation session is scheduled for late January.

Benton points out that Parrish still lives at Lurie Terrace, and Cooper wants to return–“but only if they’ll agree that he’ll be treated appropriately.

“There’s such a strong sense of community there,” the lawyer says. “That’s why they want to stay there. That’s where they want to live for the rest of their lives.

“We want to help them make it even better.”