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MEEKER | Pet lovers will agree: pets are a source of emotional support. Landlords will also agree: pets can be detrimental to property value. Determining whether emotional support animals and their owners qualify for the same housing protection as service animals became the subject of a two and a half year lawsuit filed against the Meeker Housing Authority (MHA).
The MHA is a nonprofit, town-appointed board that oversees federally subsidized housing in Meeker on Karen Court and at “The Pines” apartments.The housing projects are subsidized as part of HUD—The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development—and are therefore subject to federal regulations. Karen Court residents’ rent is subsidized based on their income. The Pines apartments are for elderly and disabled residents. The board operates independently of the Town of Meeker.
In September 2016, three Karen Court residents filed a civil lawsuit in federal court, citing violations of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which provides civil rights protections for people with disabilities.
A court declaration from former board member Robert Barr, who served 6.5 years on the board before moving to Utah in September 2016, stated prior to 2016, tenants were allowed to have pets “if the pets assisted them in their living.” In March 2016, board members presented tenants with letters ordering them to get rid of their pets. Barr stated this was not done in accordance with public meeting requirements or agreement of the board.
Tenants Megan McFadden and father and son Lonnie and A.J. White requested “reasonable accommodations” to keep their pets. McFadden had a dog, and the Whites had two cats.
What followed during the next few months was a series of additional requirements for pet owners, including a non-refundable $300 fee per pet (subsidized rent for the Whites was $125 per month at the time); a letter from a psychiatrist attesting to the need for the support animal; limits to the size and weight of assistance animals; a requirement that pet owners prove their financial ability to provide for their pets, and limited tenants to one pet.
Barr stated he protested the changes, and warned the board that they were in violation of federal law and HUD violations.
“Board members said if they had to create an exception to the no-pet policy for disabled individuals, they would make it so difficult and onerous to meet the exception’s requirements that the disabled tenant would either have to get rid of the pet or move out,” Barr stated in his court declaration.
In a recorded conversation, executive director Stacie Kincher told McFadden, “You’ll have to sue us,” in response to McFadden’s questions about the validity of the new policies.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs filed a “motion for partial summary judgement” in February 2019 and “won as a matter of law” according to attorney Siddhartha Rathod, “leaving only the damages in question.” Just weeks away from a jury trial, both parties agreed to a $950,000 settlement.
The Town of Meeker earlier settled to the tune of $50,000, which was covered by CIRSA—municipal insurance. During the course of the suit, the MHA also paid an additional $29,000 for “litigation misconduct,” Rathod told the HT Tuesday.
Since the suit, the named members of the Meeker Housing Authority have all resigned, leaving the Authority without a board. The properties are currently being managed by Urban Inc., a property management firm in Denver, which is working to resolve a decade’s worth of back payments to HUD which got “lost in the shuffle” after a government-forced refinance.
“We’re trying to get all that cleaned up,” said Urban Inc. representative Jim Murphy.
Meanwhile, McFadden has moved away, and the Whites have relocated to a pet-friendly rental, where A.J.—and his cats—can thrive.
By Niki Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org