ACLU Lawsuit Challenges Pasco Zoning Ordinance Barring Community Services for Low-Income People

News Release: 
Friday, November 20, 2009

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit challenging a City of Pasco zoning ordinance that prohibits community services that serve low-income residents from the downtown area. The ACLU is representing SeaMar Farmworker and Community Housing Development Association, a nonprofit agency barred by the ordinance from converting a vacant motel in Pasco into inexpensive housing for farmworkers. The suit seeks a court order requiring the City to process SeaMar's building permit for the housing project. The suit was filed in Franklin County Superior Court.

"Pasco has discriminated against low-income people by adopting an ordinance designed to prevent them from living in an area of the city. The ordinance primarily affects Latino workers who have a right to housing in the community," said Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director for the ACLU.

SeaMar is a nonprofit provider of health care and social services, primarily to the Latino community, which has formed a nonprofit subsidiary to create farmworker housing in Pasco. In April 2000, SeaMar purchased a vacant motel in Pasco, now known as the SeaMar Motel, and made plans to convert it into farmworker housing. SeaMar is buying another vacant motel called the Travel Inn that it will convert in a similar fashion. In May 2000, the City of Pasco instituted a moratorium on applications for any permits or licenses for community service facilities located in downtown Pasco. The City amended its zoning code in December 2001 and has refused to process SeaMar's building permit application.

The amended zoning code creates a district in the central business area from which most community services that serve the poor are prohibited. The district includes the sites of the SeaMar projects, and the ban includes "transient hotels or motels" such as the ones SeaMar plans to build. The City's justification for eliminating these community services is that they "make the central business area of the City... less desirable or attractive to the public..."

The City's goal of eliminating social services that attract poor people as clients violates the Constitution. In a similar case (City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center, 1985), the U.S. Supreme Court found that a zoning ordinance that furthers no compelling government interest other than community prejudices violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. That case involved a zoning ordinance aimed at barring a group home for the mentally retarded. In overturning the ordinance, the court noted that it "rests on a bare desire to treat the retarded as outsiders, pariahs who do not belong in the community."

The ACLU lawsuit also challenges the ordinance for being unconstitutionally vague. The ordinance defines a transient hotel as one whose clients "may rely" on "charitable assistance" for "support." This could conceivably cover any hotel, since all are willing to rent rooms to people who "may" rely on charitable assistance, so long as they can cover their bill. "Charitable assistance" is also undefined in the ordinance and could apply to people living on grants, gifts from relatives, or money from such nonprofit organizations as churches.

Michael Gendler, an attorney with the firm Gendler and Mann and chair of the ACLU Legal Committee, is handling the case. He has submitted a petition to the court.