After debate on discrimination and nearly facing legal action for a revision, the Fremont City Council approved a conditional use permit for LifeHouse’s new housing project during its meeting Tuesday night.
The item was discussed for over an hour, cutting the meeting short after a vote to adjourn around 11:30 p.m.
Councilmember Susan Jacobus brought forward an item to revise a resolution passed on Nov. 12 to approve the permit for four triplex dwelling units at Linden Avenue and K Street.
The land was sold by Fremont Presbyterian Church to LifeHouse, which will use the units as low-income housing and case management. The housing will be open to anyone in the community with an income of up to 30% of the area median income.
Although she initially voted in favor of the permit, Jacobus said she was concerned that the letters sent out by the City of Fremont and LifeHouse didn’t provide proper intent to residents in the area as to what the project would be.
Jacobus said she didn’t want to diminish the work that LifeHouse does for the community, but felt with Linden Elementary School so close by, making sure residents knew about the housing project was important.
“I ask that the council take up reconsideration of this permit to ensure that the council acted appropriately, ensuring parents and surrounding property owners their concerns were adequately heard and that appropriate conditions or safeguards were considered during the approval process and granting of this conditional permit,” she said.
Councilmember Linda McClain said she received contact from residents who felt they were not given enough information in regard to LifeHouse.
The motion to discuss the reconsideration was approved 6-2, with Councilmembers Mark Legband and Michael Kuhns voting against.
City attorney Pat Sullivan said he reviewed the notices sent by the City, and said because they disclosed the hearing dates for the conditional use permit, he did not see any issue with them.
If the reconsideration were to be passed, he said, this could set a precedent for other permits.
“I think we’re going to be in a position where we’re going to have to include every type of use and saying who those owners are is probably a violation of the Fair Housing Act, because it would appear that you’re discriminating in that regard,” Sullivan said. “And that is illegal.”
Kuhns agreed with Sullivan in that a change to the notice could be seen as discriminatory. He said although he understands the need for zoning, sometimes different zoning will “buck against other ones.”
“I cannot allow myself to be a part of that segregation and discrimination, and I think we need to move forward with this, and I appreciate what [LifeHouse is] doing,” Kuhns said.
Councilmember Brad Yerger suggested that adding just five or six words would have sufficed for the notice.
“It seems to me the insertion of those few words would have been much more informative to the public,” he said. “They may or may not have come to speak on it at the Planning Commission or not, but unless they actually looked at the packet material that was attached to the Planning Commission meeting, there was no way that the public would have known who the real builder was here.”
Yerger said he didn’t see the change as discrimination, but more of ensuring due diligence of the council. He listed several aspects of the Fremont Municipal Code, including limitations on related-use activities, parking and property maintenance.
“We could have put standards in there for that, and quite honestly, I think we were amiss for not having had some discussion in considering putting some of those things in,” Yerger said.
Jacobus also denied that the proposed change was discriminatory.
“I don’t believe there’s an intent of anybody to revisit for any kind of discriminatory status, rather to set additional conditions, if we may,” she said.
During public comment, LifeHouse CEO Tera Kucera gave background on the project. The Nebraska Department of Economic Development gave Lifehouse $2.8 million last February after it applied in September 2018.
In March, Fremont Presbyterian approached LifeHouse about selling the land. The City of Fremont and LifeHouse then sent out letters and postcards to owners within a 800-foot radius for a informational session in October.
Kucera said there was a misconception of what the project was, as it isn’t a halfway house, but provides housing and services to low-income families.
Compared to other projects, Kucera said this one will provide wrap-around services, which include case management and access to mental and physical health services.
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“This project is for families with children under the age of 18,” she said. “Many of the barriers families face is transportation to school, so this will be a great opportunity for families to walk their children to school.”
Kucera also said Fremont Public Schools Superintendent Mark Shepard was a members of the LifeHouse Board of Directors and approved both the grant and property purchase.
With other conditional use permits approved by the council, Kucera said LifeHouse had the exact same language as them.
“So I’m really not clear as to why our project is being brought back and reconsidered when the same notification came out,” she said. “And I also wonder, were the other projects requested to do some of the same things in proximity to the schools that are in their areas?”
Kucera said she spoke with LifeHouse’s representative with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development prior to the meeting.
“She informed me that the actions that the council takes this evening will determine the actions that I am required by law to take tomorrow,” she said. “And that is, I am required by federal law, because I receive federal funding for housing, to report to the Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as the Department of Justice any potential violations of the Fair Housing Act.”
Planning Director Jennifer Dam said the notices went “above and beyond” what was required of informing residents.
“If these items come up in the future, I want you to be assured that we are following state statutes in terms of our requirements for public notification,” she said.
Kelby Herman of Progressive Builders said there is no way the City could determine if the tenants are compatible with a neighborhood.
“If there’s a notice issue, it would be on all projects, because the City is responsible for sending the notices,” he said. “And I’m assuming they use a draft letter, so the room should be full of contractors and people that are working on projects, because if it’s based upon notices, then everybody did it wrong.”
Michael Wiseman of Fremont said although the project was worthwhile, he had concerns with its placement, calling it the “right project, but the wrong location.”
Wiseman also said the tenants could not be required to mandatorily attend case management.
“If a person is on probation, if a person is a member of drug court, if a person is getting other help as a part of a court system, they can be compelled to do those things,” he said. “But the difference here in this project is you can offer the services, but under the law, you can’t require compliance with them.”
Jessica Timm, director of housing and case management for LifeHouse, disagreed, saying LifeHouse has seen 100% success with people exiting the program and that this housing would provide the same services as its other programs.
“If somebody is going to offer to spend some time with me and help me address some issues I haven’t been able to deal with on my own, I’m going to take that,” she said. “Our case managers are amazing, our team is just amazing.”
Timm said LifeHouse has not had any issues or concerns with any of its five housing programs and over 40 households across Fremont.
“They’re already in our community, so we’re not bringing extra people in,” she said. “These people are already here, and we’re offering them a hand up, not a handout.”
Marty Krohn, vice president of the LifeHouse Executive Committee, said although the housing does not require case management, it works with its tenants to discover the underlying issues to their poverty and help build themselves up.
Krohn also agreed with Dam on the information provided on the notices.
“We were very open, very honest about what the project was, who would be occupying it,” he said. “There’s nothing hidden, there’s no hidden agenda. It’s just simply, we wanted to help people to get into better living conditions and help them to move up and beyond from the situation that they’re currently in.”
After a recommendation by Sullivan to move to a closed session in the face of potential legal action, the council voted 7-1 to approve the conditional use permit, with Yerger voting against.
Shortly after the vote, Legband made a motion to adjourn from the meeting early. The motion passed 5-3, with Glenn Ellis, Yerger and Jacobus voting against.
A previous version of this article stated that the vote to approve the conditional use permit was unanimous. The vote was 7-1 with Councilmember Brad Yerger voting against.