Bellevue puts housing on notice

Raucous group takes over council meeting

Although Bellevue Council expected residents to be happy that the borough intended to challenge the occupancy permits for properties being leased to a transitional housing program, the response officials received at Tuesday’s council meeting was two hours of bedlam, with residents shouting at silent officials from the audience and one man being removed by police.

The group that attended the meeting to protest a transitional housing program taking over the townhouses on Laurel Avenue and Gilliland Place was less than half the size of the crowd of about 50 who attended the pre-council meeting two weeks ago. What they lacked in size, however, they made up for in volume and anger.

The program became an issue about a month ago when the tenants of the townhouses began receiving notices that their leases would not be renewed because all of the 46 properties were being leased to the Zero Six Eight corporation for use as transitional housing for a variety of people who struggle to find safe housing, including ex-convicts, people with mental illness, disabled veterans and victims of domestic violence. The program represents a new branch for Zero Six Eight, which was formed to provide jobs and job training for the formerly incarcerated.

Founder Daniel Bull -- himself a formerly incarcerated convict who served time in federal prison for defrauding investors -- said in a prior interview that only a handful of the people moved into the houses as part of the program were ex-cons coming through the Zero Six Eight services. In fact, the man who most concerned residents two weeks ago was someone with addiction and mental health problems who was placed by a social services agency. Bull said that the man suffered a relapse and became threatening, but that as soon as he found out about the problem, the social service agency was contacted, the man’s lease was terminated for failure to follow the program rules, and he was moved into a rehabilitation facility.

Bellevue Police conducted a Crime Watch meeting to organize residents of the neighborhood and train them to keep an eye out for trouble and contact police.

Following the pre-council meeting, council directed borough solicitor Matt Racunas to look into the program and provide an opinion on whether it was a legal use of the properties. After researching the issues and meeting with the property owner and representatives of Zero Six Eight, Racunas stated Tuesday night that the borough was challenging the properties’ occupancy permits. The current permit for all the properties limits the use of the properties to that of single family residential.

The joint zoning code covering Bellevue defines a single family dwelling as one inhabited by a “family.” It goes on to state that individuals need not necessarily be related by blood, marriage, adoption or guardianship. Across the country, zoning laws that attempt to limit the definition of family have been struck down as unconstitutional. The local zoning law recognizes the expanded definition, and limits the number of unrelated persons residing in a single family dwelling to five.

The housing program provides single bedrooms leased on a month-to-month basis, each of them with access to common living areas and kitchen facilities.

Racunas said that the property owner and Zero Six Eight were to provide a list of people currently residing in the houses, and the borough then would determine which properties were being used in a manner that possibly violates the zoning code. Notices of noncompliance were expected to go out on Wednesday. The companies then had several options, Racunas said. They could appeal the borough’s determination of noncompliance to the zoning hearing board and then to the county and state court system, or they could apply for new occupancy permits that limit use to those allowed in moderate density residential areas under the zoning code.

In the meantime, Racunas said, the program would be prohibited from moving any new residents into the units.

The solicitor’s report, delivered at the outset of the meeting, fell on deaf ears, however, as resident after resident complained that council should have known about the program earlier, and done something to stop it from ever happening.

Bellevue Council has a long-standing procedure for comments by the public at meetings. It requires the speaker to state his name and address, sign a register, and limit comments to a maximum of five minutes. Although some people followed those rules, the meeting quickly devolved into people shouting over each other as council sat silently and Racunas was left to attempt to explain the borough’s position. He said that the borough was doing everything it could within the law, and was doing it as quickly as possible.

“I’m sorry I can’t go in there and drag them out,” he said.

A number of speakers do not live in the immediate vicinity of the housing program properties.In fact, one man who had complained months ago about a property in disrepair in the area of Roosevelt and Sheridan avenues returned to Tuesday’s meeting to state that he was still living next to deplorable conditions that were not being abated.

No one was called out of order until this man came out of the audience to within feet of the solicitor. At that point council president Tom Fodi banged the gavel, and Racunas motioned for police to take action. After yelling directly at the camera recording the meeting, the man returned to his seat, soon after leaving the council chambers, only to return and begin playing a video of the conditions in his neighborhood, holding his cell phone up in the direction of the camera in council chambers.