Three doctors and their South Hill neighbors are suing to boot a group home for elderly people from their affluent, picturesque street.
The woman planning to run the adult family home says the doctors are abandoning compassion for people who can no longer care for themselves.
The physicians insist their only bias is toward businesses. They’re out to protect the family flavor of their historic neighborhood, where large houses overlook the rolling hills of Manito Park.
The future of adult family homes also is at stake, say social workers who praise them as humane, money-saving alternatives for people who can’t afford or don’t like nursing homes.
The homes also provide a better quality of life for people who can’t live entirely on their own but don’t need to be institutionalized, says Ben Blake, adult family home manager for the Department of Social and Health Services.
Fortunately, says Blake, neighbors rarely object to the homes. “That would certainly hamper our ability to provide care to people.”
Banning the home also may violate state fair housing laws that forbid discrimination against group homes in neighborhoods, says Assistant City Attorney Pat Dalton.
Adult family homes are becoming so popular, more than 240 licensed homes dot neighborhoods across Spokane County, and more open each month.
A homeowner typically takes in a few residents and cares for them alongside the rest of the family. For the elderly, it’s more like home than an institution.
But some entrepreneurs see the money-making potential and - with state blessing - run several homes, hiring caretakers, nurses, sometimes even maintenance workers.
Such is the case with LeAnn Riley, the 40-year-old waitress-turned-caretaker who tipped the South Hill neighborhood upside down when she bought the house at 212 W. Manito Place last fall.
“I thought, ‘What a neat area! It’s close to the park,”’ says Riley, a single mother who runs three other homes. “Elderly people want to be by the park.”
She knew the neighborhood had a covenant dating to 1904 that restricts businesses, but Riley says she doubts it applies to adult family homes.
She moved in one elderly woman and planned to welcome more, but Riley sent the woman elsewhere and put her plans on hold when neighbors objected.
Although Riley impresses social workers with the concern and care she shows elderly residents, her new neighbors weren’t so pleased.
Five couples last month filed a lawsuit, including three doctors, an attorney and an insurance broker who spends winters in the south.
The real estate broker who sold Riley the house for $160,000 was outraged.
“Some of the people she wants to put in there grew up in that neighborhood,” says Tim Moyer. “I don’t think elderly people should be forced out of their neighborhood because they pay for their care.”
Adult family homes are springing up in surrounding neighborhoods without complaint, Moyer says.
Thomas Coburn, an insurance broker who moved to Manito Place in 1969, disagrees.
“It’s just not a good situation,” he says. Coburn especially dislikes Riley’s initial plans to place Alzheimer’s patients in the three-bedroom house.
“They do get out occasionally. The men may wander around - there’s four little girls next door.”
If the close-knit neighbors had known Riley’s intentions, they probably would’ve blocked them by buying the house themselves, says Coburn.
Most important, he says, residents don’t want businesses for neighbors. They’ll shun them just as they did the folks who wanted to open a French restaurant down the block years ago.
Dr. Timothy Seppa, a pediatrician, and Dr. Alfonso Oliva, a plastic surgeon who specializes in microsurgery, say they have nothing against adult family homes or Alzheimer’s patients.
They’re suing to defend a covenant that protects their neighborhood from being overrun by unwanted businesses and the traffic that comes with them, the doctors say.
“The rest of us are living by that covenant,” says Seppa.
“If it was a bakery or a flower shop or an auto shop, we still wouldn’t want it to be there,” says Oliva.
Dr. Richard Lambert and his wife, Marie, who also are plaintiffs, refused comment and referred questions to their attorney. Plaintiffs Joseph and Margaret Harrington also refused comment.
Their attorney John Nelson says if his clients overlook Riley and her adult family home, they can’t reject other businesses.
“She’s just a businessperson and she’s buying residential property in order to run these things and make a living,” Nelson says. “I think she’s also trying to ride the increase in property values while she’s doing this.”
Key to the case, say attorneys for both sides, is whether the neighborhood has substantially changed since the business restriction was adopted. Riley’s attorney will try to prove it has.
Riley has decided to ignore her neighbors’ snubs, license the home and recruit three clients to move to the adult family home with a view.
She plans to charge her usual monthly rates: up to $2,800 per resident.
Florrie Brassier, executive director for the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance, is studying the case for violations of state laws forbidding discrimination against group homes.
So is Dalton, the city’s land use attorney. “By labeling it a business,” he says, “it seems to me the neighbors are trying to avoid the statute.”
Yet he won’t predict the outcome. “It’s a close call.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Map: Proposed site of adult care home