A businessman is fighting to revive a homeless campground on his private property. And the city of Akron is ready to appeal if he wins.
Sage Lewis, who operates the nonprofit Homeless Charity at 15 Broad St., will appear before the Board of Zoning Appeals at City Hall, 166 S. High St., at 3 p.m. Wednesday. His attorneys intend to use the public hearing like mediation, asking that the mayor-appointed board allow the tents to return but with limits and new rules that might appease neighbors and city officials.
For months, Lewis had operated what was first called Second Chance Village without city permission. The homeless campground grew to more than 40 tents.
The city received nuisance complaints and threatened to close it down if Lewis didn’t apply for special zoning. He filed that conditional zoning request, which Mayor Dan Horrigan and most of the city council ultimately rejected in September.
In the 60 days that followed, homeless service providers worked with Lewis and the city to get nearly everyone out of tents and into apartments, houses or shelters. Lewis sent the few who remained back to the streets on Dec. 6, which is when the city issued its final notice to clear out.
The next day, Lewis’ pro-bono attorneys told the city they would appeal. A week later, Horrigan’s legal staff sent the city council a proposed law that would ensure that the mayor has the right to challenge if the Board of Zoning Appeals, or any other municipal commission, overturns a city decision.
Before unanimously passing the new law on Jan. 7, some on the council asked under what circumstances would the city challenge the decision of a mayor-appointed board or commission. City administrators never mentioned Lewis’ appeal, which was filed Dec. 21. Instead, they used a general example of how the Board of Zoning Appeals might disagree, creating an inharmonious land-use situation.
Jeff Rowes with the Institute for Justice said he’ll ask the appeals board on Wednesday to let the tents return, but as a more temporary and regulated housing option. Anyone in them who is offered permanent housing would have to take it, he explained. Tents would be limited by number and put on platforms to give a uniform appearance. Because a neighboring senior living facility drove many of the complaints, plots would be restricted to areas directly behind Lewis’ office building or tucked into a corner on an adjacent lot owned by the Homeless Charity.
“Sage has been having to turn people out onto street,” Rowes said Thursday. “And we would like to have some way not to have to do that.”
Meanwhile, Lewis is rehabbing 47 N. Arlington St., a home he bought from the Summit County Land Bank this month. He said a city inspector told workers that no one is to be in it between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. because it is condemned.
“I was surprised that we had bought a condemned house, because no one told us that,” said Lewis, who wouldn’t talk about his legal fight with the city on the advice of counsel.
Lewis hasn’t heard from the city, he said. But he tracked down an order of condemnation from 2014 listing necessary repairs: hook up the utilities, replace missing or broken windows, fix the porch and more. “I believe that it is quite repairable,” said Lewis, who is puzzled that the city won’t let homeless people live in the house while working on it since the council and the mayor have already voted to let him use it as a group home for six tenants.
Tara Samples, one of the few on the council who supported Lewis’ continued use of tents as transitional housing, said she was assured by the city’s housing inspector that Lewis would be given ample time to complete the list of repairs, which closely mirrors another list provided by the Land Bank as a condition of the sale.
“I would hope that we would all have a meeting of the minds to do what’s right to get people housing instead of playing these political games,” Samples said, noting how Lewis already has homeless people ready to move into the property this winter. “We’ve already said we’re going to give him a group home to operate.”
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.