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City of Howell responds to housing lawsuit settlement, says it was never discriminatory

The City of Howell has responded to Tuesday’s announcement that they had settled the case of Amber Reineck House (ARH) vs. the City of Howell for $750,000.

The settlement stemmed from a 20-month moratorium imposed by the City in July of 2018 on new sober living and other group homes after neighbors opposed the Amber Reineck House.

Courtney Atsalakis, who launched The Amber Reineck House following her sister Amber’s overdose-related death on Christmas Eve 2015, called the resolution “a victory not just for the Amber Reineck House, but for Michigan women who struggle with substance use disorder.”

However, in a press release issued Wednesday by Howell City Manager Erv Suida, the characterization of the settlement as a “victory” for the plaintiffs was disputed.

“This matter started on April 9, 2018, when Courtney Atsalakis filed a special land use application with the City of Howell,” said the release. “The City had no ordinance for such an application. The City started to work on an ordinance to allow such uses. On June 11, 2018, Ms. Atsalakis withdrew her application prior to a Planning Commission meeting on that date. At the time of the application, there were nine recovery facilities in the City of Howell alone, but unlike the type of facility requested by Ms. Atsalakis.”

Suida said the City passed a resolution on July 23, 2018 to deal with the issue by placing a moratorium on any application for that type of special land use and that work then commenced on a new ordinance by legal counsel and planning consultants for the City.

“Various drafts of the Ordinances were discussed before the Planning Commission in 2019,” continued the release. “Ms. Atsalakis wanted to file a new application on September 27, 2019, which was not accepted by the City due to the Moratorium and continued work on the ordinances. At the Planning Commission meeting on January 15, 2020 (prior to the lawsuit being filed on January 27, 2020), a representative of the Fair Housing Center appeared, objected to the form of the proposed ordinance, and informed the Planning Commission that the representative would submit such objections and thoughts in writing to the Planning Commission. No written communication was received from the representative of the center.”

Suida said the City and its legal team remained confident that their case was strongly supported by the facts, and noted that the U.S. District Court had dismissed, prior to settlement negotiations, 5 of the 9 claims as set forth in the Plaintiff’s complaint.

“Most importantly, these dismissals upheld the Ordinance enacted by the City, contrary to the Plaintiff’s position that such ordinances were unconstitutional,” said Suida. “In point of fact, Ms. Atsalakis was able to open a recovery house on Michigan Avenue in the City of Howell under the City’s current ordinance, while the lawsuit was still ongoing.”

Suida said the original house on Walnut Street in the City that had been purchased by Atsalakis also could have been used for an additional recovery house, but instead, she chose to sell it for a “substantial” profit.

“It is unfortunate the City must address the misleading and inaccurate press release regarding the ARH settlement,” said the release. “This case was settled without trial, with the City not admitting to any liability and settling a disputed claim. Both parties negotiated in good faith after almost 3 years of litigation and discovery, as legal fees continued to escalate on both sides. The City believes that it was never discriminatory during any time in dealing with Ms. Atsalakis.”

“It was and remains, the City of Howell’s priority to ensure that these types of recovery facilities are maintained and operated in a manner that provides adequate and safe space for people to continue their journey toward a successful recovery. The reality is not every person that may open a facility, such as the ARH, has the best of intentions and may not provide a space that Is conducive, but rather detrimental, to someone’s recovery.”

“The City of Howell will continue to work with AH and other similar facilities in their efforts to assist the safe and healthy recovery of women ravaged by this addiction.”

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