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Protester of group home is targeted

A Norco woman upset over disabled neighbors faces a state and federal investigation for alleged housing discrimination.

March 20, 2007|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

State and federal authorities have opened an investigation into a Norco housewife, alleging that her vitriolic protests against a high-risk group home in her neighborhood may constitute housing discrimination.

The inquiry makes the actions of Julie Waltz, 61, the first test of a controversial new tactic by advocates for the developmentally disabled to stop protesters from trying to drive group homes from neighborhoods throughout the state.

The tempest in Norco began in 2005 after the home next to Waltz on Broken Arrow Street was sold. She said she learned from public records that it was to be a group home for "fire-setting," "sexually inappropriate" and "physically aggressive" people.

Administrators of the new operation, Supporting Unlimited Possibilities Inc., assured Waltz that the home was only for the developmentally disabled and that the residents didn't suffer from other problems listed on the group home's mission statement.

Over Waltz's objections, the home received state funds to open in 2005. Waltz said that when her new neighbors arrived, they hurled rocks and obscenities at her. She and some neighbors then placed signs in their yards urging the group home to "get out" and warned neighbors that "your wife and kids are potential rape victims" -- driving the residents inside to tears, according to their advocates.

After months of turmoil, state officials told Waltz in September that her actions had triggered an investigation into alleged violations of state and federal housing discrimination laws that protect the disabled.

The number of developmentally disabled people in institutional settings has dropped by more than 2,600 since 1995, when the state began placing more of them in neighborhoods. It is part of the state's long-term strategy to place the developmentally disabled in its care in less restrictive environments.

Opponents such as Waltz point out that among those newly qualified for a group home setting are people charged with sex crimes who are ruled incompetent to stand trial. Using that point as a rallying cry, concerned residents have held fiery demonstrations throughout the state, including one outside a group home in Phelan with registered sex offenders that was forced to shut down out of fear for its residents' safety.

Assembly members Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) and Sharon Runner (R-Lancaster) have voiced support for legislation restricting the placement of sex offenders in group homes for the developmentally disabled.

The investigation of Waltz by the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, on the recommendation of federal officials, is expected to be completed in June, officials said.

The effort against Waltz -- who enjoys aerobics and decorating, is a grandmother of four and maintains that "I love all people" -- is experimental.

A spokesman for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledged that in order to recommend the inquiry, it had to push aside internal guidelines that prohibit such an investigation because it infringes on the 1st Amendment.

The rules require that complaints of housing discrimination be investigated only in cases in which the alleged victim's safety has been threatened.

No such allegation has been made against Waltz, but HUD opened an investigation into her and state investigators ordered her to respond to the complaint in detail because a preliminary review showed that someone else in the neighborhood may have made a violent threat, said HUD spokesman Larry Bush.

Federal officials wouldn't say why the Waltz probe has continued even though she hadn't made the threat.

"This is really just them trying to shut me up," Waltz said.

Bush said it was "regrettable" if Waltz interpreted the investigation as an effort by the government to squelch her free speech rights.

But UCLA Law School Dean Michael H. Schill, one of the nation's leading real estate law experts, said the government investigation may be unconstitutional. "I think she has a point," Schill said. "Her protests appeal to an emotional response, but is it inciting violence? Merely protesting -- does that constitute a violation of the Fair Housing Act? I think the answer is clearly no."

Schill pointed to a case in Berkeley in which three neighbors protested a housing project for the homeless approved by the City Council in 1992. Residents of the area said the project would bring drug addicts, alcoholics and others into a neighborhood already troubled by poverty and decay, and they sued to stop it.

A housing advocate filed a complaint with HUD, and the agency opened an investigation into allegations that the residents' protests had incited housing discrimination.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2000 that the investigation violated the residents' right to free speech. "There was simply no justification for the officials to take the extraordinarily intrusive and chilling measure they did during the subsequent eight-month investigation," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote.

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