The city of Sandy Springs says its efforts against a program that helps fragile and broken women is merely a “zoning case.”
Zoning can be a tool used to protect the community. Other times it can be a veil used as a cover for Not-In-My-Back-Yard.
The Mary Hall Freedom House helps women recover from substance abuse, mental illness and homelessness. More than 100 women live in condos that the program bought in a condominium complex last year.
There lies the problem. The city says Mary Hall is running drug treatment and other social services in condo units without a business license. Mary Hall owns 33 of the 90 units in the complex.
Mary Hall officials say the women are simply living in units the organization owns. Many of the women pay rent. Some are in treatment and others are finished and getting their lives back together. Many are veterans.
Let me introduce you to Stephanie Kimsey, who was shot, sexually abused, jailed and strung out on drugs all before she turned 24 and approached Mary Hall for help.
Now, the slight, friendly North Georgia woman with pigtails works 35 hours a week serving up sandwiches at a Publix and another 35 attending cosmetology school.
Basically, she sleeps and studies in her two-bedroom unit at the Reserve of Dunwoody, which she shares with another woman in the program. Men are not allowed to visit, she says.
How does she sum up her current view of life?
“People respect people who are trying to do right,” said Kimsey, who is working to gain that respect day by long day.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul contends this is not a NIMBY moment for the affluent suburb that has continued to ascend in property values and desirability. In fact, he said the city in the past has given the program’s founder, Lucy Hall, an award as humanitarian of the year, and has also kicked in a few thousand dollars in grants. (The 22-year-old program was named for Lucy Hall’s mother.)
“This is simply a zoning case,” said Paul. “They bought several million dollars of property. But the (Mary Hall) board did not determine if the property’s zoning allowed them to operate as they operate.”
The mayor said some residents in the complex have complained about the Mary Hall occupants, and code officers have investigated. It’s not his doing, he said. It’s just how cities work.
“It’s a simple zoning case they’ve made into a federal case,” Paul said.
Yes, this dispute has gone federal, and Mary Hall’s attorney, Simon Bloom, immediately punched the city in the mouth in a 50-page complaint.
The first two sentences of the lawsuit say the case was filed because of Sandy Springs “highest officials’ blatant discrimination against homeless women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and/or mental health disorders. The city simply does not want these individuals living within its city limits.”
It adds that a city official once told a Mary Hall board member, “You wouldn’t want your daughter living around these people.”
Let me introduce you to another of these people: Lisa Ware, a 48-year-old who worked at the Red Cross for more than 10 years but hit a psychological wall a few years back and started drinking. Then her life fell apart.
Today, she manages an IHOP and puts in 60-hour weeks to pay the rent, to save some money, and to keep up with her Uber bills. She said she desperately needs to buy a car.
“This is a place worth fighting for,” Ware said. “Why are they messing with the ones who are trying?”
Last year, Lucy Hall told me the program decided to buy residential units because the apartments it rented nearby continually got more expensive.
According to reports published last year in the Reporter News, some residents complained to the city because the Mary Hall women gathered outside to smoke and the residents worried about property values.
“While I applaud Mary Hall’s mission … no one wants to live among people who make them uncomfortable,” one resident was quoted as saying.
Sandy Springs has filed three rounds of citations against the program. The first was settled when Lucy Hall paid a fine and moved an office she had set up on the property to a different location. All of Mary Hall’s programs, such as rehab or counseling, are run at a different location, Lucy Hall said. Vans come to and from the condo complex to shuttle women to such programs.
The second round of citations was dismissed by a judge. And the third round landed the matter in the feds’ lap.
Sandy Springs provided three documents they said indicate Mary Hall is doing more than just allowing ladies and their kids to live in the condos. That will be determined in litigation — or negotiations. Each of the documents will be argued either way.
The law firm Dentons came in and observed Mary Hall’s arrangement. It determined: “It does not appear that the residential units are being used as a personal care home, boarding/rooming house, group living, or institutional living as those terms are defined. You just have multiple self-contained rental units occupied by persons and families.”
The firm concluded, “SO: either they (Sandy Springs officials) are refusing to understand what you are doing in each of these properties or they don’t care to learn.”
I walked around the condo complex, which is made up of two-story units built decades ago. The grounds are clean and quiet. I saw several women, most of them youngish, coming with groceries, picking up kids at school buses and even going outside to smoke.
I spoke with several residents and owners not in the program. All of them said there was little drama with the Mary Hall residents. One said that some initial problems with women congregating outside were quickly dealt with by the program.
One resident, a retired veteran named Steve, lives next to a Mary Hall client and beneath another. He acknowledged there was no noise, no fighting, no crime.
“They are generally OK,” he said, adding that he’s a recovering alcoholic with 30 years sobriety.
“It’s not that I’m against it,” Steve said. “I don’t want to live around it.”