MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

April 8, 2014

Housing bias complaint brings in HUD

Investigation involves drug rehab home closed over zoning issue

By D.E. Smoot
Phoenix Staff Writer

— Federal authorities are investigating allegations of discriminatory housing practices lodged by the owner of a now defunct faith-based therapeutic center for women.

The investigation was prompted by a complaint filed by Henry M. Petree with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The complaint alleges city ordinances were used “to discriminate in zoning and land use” and that the alleged violation “occurred because of handicap.”

Petree was the principal and registered agent of Hope Village Inc., a nonprofit corporation “that provides support for individuals recovering from drug addiction and alcoholism.” The center, which Petree said he had to close after he received a notice that he was violating city zoning codes, provided “an environment that promotes sobriety” for women.

In the complaint, Petree states city officials told him the property where Hope Village was operating would have to be rezoned from single-family residential to accommodate what Planning Director Gary Garvin classified as a residential treatment center. Petree alleges city officials told him the “development department would never recommend rezoning” because “the house was located in the historical district” and “neighbors would never allow” it.

Assistant City Attorney Matthew Beese said officials first learned about Hope Village after a neighbor complained about work being done on a house in the Kendall Historical District. An inspector who investigated the complaint determined no permit was necessary for the work being done, and there was no substantiation that the house was being used as a residential treatment center.

Suspicions among neighbors that the house was being used for something other than a residential dwelling were confirmed thereafter by an article published in the Phoenix. Beese said the newspaper article provided “the only formal information regarding the intended use of the property.”

“We went out there and told them they would have to make application to get it rezoned, but they never did,” Beese said. “This is one of our issues: We have a procedure where a person can request a variance — we have the right to say no — but we didn’t even have the chance to go through that process.”

Petree denies he was offered the option to request a variance or that the property be rezoned. He said the only thing city officials told him was “that zoning (officials) would never recommend that to the (City) Council,” which has final authority over zoning requests.

“They basically put us out of business,” said Petree, who started his Hope Village ministry in Haskell after seeing the success of a faith-based treatment center for men in Fort Gibson. “We had to close the center — there are no jobs in Haskell for the women.”

Beese said the HUD investigation remains in its early stages. He said the city is dealing with an investigator in the agency’s Oklahoma City office. If Petree’s complaint is determined to have merit, it would be referred to an office in Texas for further review. The complaint, Beese said, then would have to be forwarded to officials in Washington before litigation would commence.

“We have looked at our zoning regulations and don’t believe there is anything discriminatory,” Beese said. “And we are in the process of adopting new ones, so if there are any shortcomings, this would be the perfect time to review them and make sure they are not discriminatory.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.