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Disabled group blasts county’s housing plan

Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff

With Summit County facing a $40 million fair-housing lawsuit in federal court, Utah’s Disabled Rights Action Committee accused the county Tuesday of disseminating misinformation about the availability of affordable housing in one of Utah’s most expensive real estate markets.

The disabled-advocacy group joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Utah’s Coalition of La Raza last year in the lawsuit against Summit County. The organizations claim the government has discriminated against the poor by not having enough affordable housing in the community or a plan to construct more.

The 44-page complaint filed against the county names current Summit County Commissioners Bob Richer, Ken Woolstenhulme and Sally Elliott, and former County Commissioners Shauna Kerr, Eric Schifferli and Patrick Cone as defendants in the case.

In response to the allegations, last October, the county adopted a moderate-income housing plan that identifies 1,838 affordable units in the Snyderville Basin. But Bruce Baird, an attorney for the plaintiffs, claims 1,323 of those properties don’t qualify as affordable under standards set by county officials.

To identify the units, the county reportedly screened tax rolls in the Summit County Assessor’s Office for properties with a maximum selling price of roughly $216,000. But, last month Baird asked a federal judge to throw out Summit County’s housing plan because among the units listed as affordable in the document are a house in Silver Summit recently listed for sale for $520,000 and a home in Summit Park listed at $659,000.

Vacant building lots and a lot the contains only a basketball court were also listed in the county’s housing report, Baird said, adding that county officials have "attempted fraud on the court."

To further criticize the county’s housing plan, the Disabled Rights Action Committee held a press conference Tuesday near a vacant lot in Silver Creek — also claimed as affordable housing by the county, said Jerry Costley, executive director of the organization. "We are very disappointed in Summit County that they tried to yank our chain they were lying through their teeth," Barbara Toomer, secretary of the Disabled Rights Action Committee board of directors said about an audit of the housing plan. "We ran into a resort that had a price tag of $250,000 for a three-month ownership. We found a vacant lot. We also found several places that were not accessible and certainly not affordable."

Costley blasted Summit County deputy attorney David Thomas for claiming recently that the non-profit groups would receive a "black eye" for aligning themselves with Baird and attorney Michael Hutchings. The law partners have filed nearly 10 development-related lawsuits against Summit County on behalf of several landowners. "[Thomas] said, had we have done our homework, had we really have studied things out, we’d know that there were 1,800 affordable-housing units up here," Costley said. "Whether it was total incompetence on their part, or whether they were lying, it doesn’t matter I think the black eye is on Dave Thomas. I think the black eye is on Summit County."

Meanwhile, many of the units the county identifies as affordable are not accessible to the disabled, as federal housing laws require, Costley said. "They have made a statement to the court that almost borders on being fraudulent," Costley said about the county’s housing plan. "We are proud to be a part of this lawsuit. There is not affordable housing in Summit County."

A press release from the county Tuesday did not address specific properties listed in the housing plan. County officials claim the list identifies "housing units or properties which meet federal and state affordability criteria." "The county has never said [the list] was anything else, and has never relied upon that list to establish compliance with the Utah [moderate income housing] law at issue," the press release states. On Jan. 4, attorneys for Summit County filed a motion in opposition to Baird’s request that the federal judge prohibit the county from using the plan as evidence in the lawsuit.

But Baird says it’s difficult to survive through a Summit County winter on an outdoor basketball court. "It’s an embarrassment to the county that they continue to stand on that list and haven’t done any analysis of it. It’s just shocking that they seem to think that the sport court is OK," Baird said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "The list is about as phony as George Bush’s weapons of mass destruction. I guess they have a few more houses than George Bush has found weapons of mass destruction, but not many."


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