Life Behind Bars

The story of Arcadia’s newest (and smallest) gated community

The gates of Versailles“You can see why the people hated them so much,” quipped my teenage daughter as we approached the gates of Versailles. It was, indeed, an unsettling sight. Gold-plated gaudiness stretching as far as the eye could see, luminous even under a heavy cloud cover and a light drizzle. I could easily picture the velvet-robed monarchs, feasting inside by warm fires as the hungry masses huddled outside in the cold.

I know some people love living in gated communities, but personally, I’ve never seen the appeal. My idea of a perfect neighborhood is one where kids find playmates down the street and grown-ups gather on front porches for an evening cocktail. It’s why we chose Arcadia 17 years ago, even though we could have afforded a larger house in McCormick Ranch. I have sometimes regretted choosing our particular house, situated on a small cul-de-sac off an increasing busy 56th Street. Though we’re smack in  the geographical center of Arcadia, we’re just a bit cut-off from either side of the neighborhood. So why would we choose to isolate ourselves even more, by gating ourselves in?

The story begins back in April 2017, when we learned that the two homes at the mouth of our cul-de-sac where being converted into senior assisted-living group homes. The houses, originally 4 bedroom, 3 bath floor plans, was slated to have 10 bedrooms each. How would 20 additional residents, plus visitors, caretakers, service personnel, and delivery vehicles, impact our tiny street? We didn’t think it was right and, in fact, it shouldn’t have been. City codes in place at the time stipulated ¼ mile spacing restrictions for group homes of 6 or more people. Surely, we thought, once this error is exposed we can get one of the permits pulled. It turned out there was much more to the story.

Is it a home? Or a business?
Group homes, as we define them today, began appearing in single-family neighborhoods in the late 1950s, following a movement to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. In 1988, the Fair Housing Act Amendment made people with disabilities a federally protected class. The result has been a proliferation of operators setting up group homes to serve individuals with mental illness, physical impairments, or in recovery from drug or alcohol dependency.

When neighbors first learn about a nearby group home, they typically have a lot of questions — we sure did — the first one being, “how is this allowed in a single-family neighborhood?” The fact is that group homes of up to 10 individuals may locate in just about any neighborhood and do not require a change in zoning. Regardless of how they are perceived by neighbors, the courts consider group homes to be just that: Homes, not businesses.

The purpose of a group home is to integrate individuals with disabilities into communities, allowing them to live in regular neighborhoods. The Federal Fair Housing Act requires that group housing for persons with disabilities be free from restrictions that would not otherwise be imposed on families or other groups of non-related individuals. In an attempt to regulate group homes, most municipalities have drafted ordinances, with some trying to ban group homes completely. But when litigation occurs, the courts almost always side in favor or the group home operator. This is, more or less, what led to the situation on our street.

In 2015, the Department of Justice and HUD notified the City of Phoenix that its current restrictions on group homes could be viewed as discriminatory. One of the issues was the ¼ mile spacing requirement. This rule, common in many municipalities, was intended to prevent group home clustering. There might be situations, said the Feds, where the City should take other factors into consideration. City officials knew they would need to revise their current regulations. In the meantime, without City Council approval, a decision was made to suspend all spacing requirements. The two homes on our street both had their permits approved on the same day in December 2016. (The City of Phoenix has since revised ordinances for group homes.)

Believing that we had a case against City and possibly against the group home operator, the eight of us in the other 4 homes banded together. We attended neighborhood planning meetings, exchanged numerous emails with city officials, and met with concerned neighbors from other parts of Arcadia. We were contacted to do TV and radio interviews. It was impossible to go to Safeway without being stopped by someone and asked about our story. We consulted an attorney and began preparing for a fight.

Then, somewhere along the way, we began a dialogue with the group home operator. During one conversation, he expressed surprise at our anger. In his view, he was doing us a favor, taking these houses that were, admittedly, past their prime, and sprucing them up. He promised to be a good neighbor. Perhaps, we thought, there’s a way to compromise.

The wait for the gate
While we were in the thick of all this, one of our tactics had been postings on social media. We drew some responses that accused us of harboring hatred for the elderly. It’s important to say that this was never about the residents themselves. If several disabled seniors had bought the houses and hired private caretakers, that would have felt different. We were mostly concerned about two things: How the scale of a 10-person group home, times 2, would increase traffic and turn our small street into a parking lot; and the effect they would have on our property values. Maybe the best option was simple — build a gate. It would keep the traffic from impacting us, and give our 4 homes a measure of exclusivity. There are people, after all, who will pay a premium to live in a gated community.

We began negotiations with the group home operator and the City of Phoenix. We would forego legal action if the developer agreed to help finance the gate and City consented to help smooth the permitting process. Meanwhile, in October 2016, the first group home residents moved in. By December, the second home was also open.

And how has it been? Well, in some ways, not so bad. The houses, though not architectural marvels by any stretch, are now attractive and nicely landscaped. It is, as we expected, quiet. But traffic has increased exponentially. Medical delivery trucks and, unexpectedly, HVAC servicers, make frequent visits. ER calls happen on average 3 times a month. Often times, when coming home, I feel like I’ve entered a parking lot instead of my street. But even when all parties are cooperating, building a gate takes time. First, we had to form an HOA — we named it Palm Circle Estates. Then there were plans to be drafted and inspections to be passed, long before the first bricks could be laid. If not for the perseverance of our neighbor, Jeff, who has a background in engineering, I honestly don’t think we’d have ever gotten it done. Altogether it’s taken a full year to build the fencing and install the gate system, but on October 9, it became official. The bars closed around Palm Circle Estates.

The first day was a bit rocky. Our clickers were waiting for us in Stefanie’s house, but she was on a plane to Atlanta. Coming home from the gym, I confidently punched in my secret code, only to be greeted by a series of angry beeps. Three tries later, I remembered that somewhere in my email was a message with the code for UPS. Success — I was in! My neighbor, Jeff, delivering the coveted clickers that evening, confided that his code hadn’t worked, either. Apparently the mail carrier had also been shut out–our boxes were all empty.

If you drive by our street, you’ll notice that the gates, for the time being, are open. Not because our codes don’t work, but because we still have one more piece of the puzzle to put in place. The strip of sidewalk in front of the north group home is being removed, and the street will be widened, to allow for safer parking and fire access. Once that is done, probably by mid-November, our mission will be complete.

With our newly constructed gates soon set to close around our homes, I wonder –will the neighbors on nearby streets grow to resent us? We are, after all, only making the best of an unfortunate situation. But perhaps we are only pushing our own problems off on them. The true test will come when the first of us puts our home on the market. Will it be an advantage to be in an “exclusive gated community?” Only time will tell. But for now, I promise we aren’t sitting around bidding those of you outside to eat cake.

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