The 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue in the historic Old Town Triangle, an area where many homes pre-date the Great Chicago Fire. Credit: Jonathan Ballew / Block Club Chicago

OLD TOWN — More than a year ago, the Deakin family thought their bitter feud with a neighborhood group had ended when they won permission to add a garage to their historic home for their daughter, who uses a wheelchair.

But work on the property was blocked by lawsuits filed by the preservation-minded neighbors.

Now, the Deakins are fighting back. This week, the family filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the Old Town Triangle Association. The suit argues the neighborhood group’s members violated the Fair Housing Act by engaging in an alleged pattern of discrimination, harassment and vandalism toward the family.

The Deakin family wants to build a two-car attached garage at their home, built in 1891, in the 1800 block of North Lincoln Avenue — a garage the parents say will accommodate the needs of their daughter, Ava Deakin, who uses a wheelchair. But the Old Town Triangle Association has opposed the move, saying a street-level garage could damage the historical integrity of the area and violate the district’s rules.

After the dispute was heard by the Zoning Board of Appeals in December 2018, the Deakins were ultimately granted the zoning change they desired, much to the dismay of Old Town Triangle Association members.

RELATED: Family Can Add Garage To Historic Home For Daughter In Wheelchair, Board Rules In Bitter Zoning Dispute

The Old Town Triangle Association sued the zoning board and the Deakins in March, alleging the Deakins’ attorney, Nick Ftikas, lobbied city officials behind the scenes without properly registering as a lobbyist. The suit also alleged the Deakins did “not act in good faith” throughout the zoning appeals process and relied on emotional appeals to sway the board.

RELATED: Old Town Group Sues Family Over Plan To Add Garage To Historic Home For Daughter In Wheelchair

Although the Old Town Triangle Association’s first suit was dismissed, a judge allowed the association to draft an amended complaint and file a second suit in September.

Ava Deakin (center front), with her classmates who supported her during the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting in 2018.

Bags Of Poop Left On Family’s Property, Lawsuit Alleges

Now, with help from disability rights group Access Living, the Deakins filed their own lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act, arguing the Old Town Triangle Association has “motives of delaying, obstructing, or interfering with [their] ability to move into the property.”

Since March, the neighborhood has felt especially unwelcoming for the Deakins family, according to the lawsuit. Locks have been damaged and bags of dog feces have been left on their driveway and front yard on multiple occasions, the suit alleges.

The Old Town Triangle Association, the group’s attorney and the group’s spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Representatives from Access Living have been working with the Deakins since 2018, and they helped the Deakins file their federal lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act.

Mary Rosenberg, an attorney on Access Living’s civil rights team, and Tahir Duckett, a D.C.-based civil rights attorney with Relman, Dane & Colfax, both described the Old Town Triangle Association’s behavior as “egregious and shocking.”

“Once we found out about the actions of the Old Town Triangle Association, it struck us as behavior that violates the very core of what the Fair Housing Act is all about,” Duckett said. “Every person at my firm who has had a chance to look at the [association’s] words and actions has been completely shocked by the degree to which [the association] has felt comfortable expressing discriminatory beliefs.”

In 2018, Steve Weiss, then-president of the Old Town Triangle Association, wrote a letter to Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) detailing his objections to the Deakins’ project.

“I understand that the people who purchased the house have a child that requires special needs,” he wrote. “What I don’t understand is why they chose to buy a house in a Landmark Zone when you have these needs. I don’t mean to be heartless or uncaring but this is not the neighborhood for that. Here you conform to the rules, not the other way around.”

The garage would ruin one of the most beautiful and historic lines of Victorian homes in Chicago, and the family knew they would be subject to the landmark district’s rules, Weiss wrote.

“Now I’m feeling bad like they are shaming us because we are not willing to allow them this garage which they need for their child,” Weiss wrote. “They should have put their child’s needs first and moved to a neighborhood more conducive to her needs.”

The Deakins’ complaint also details other members of the Old Town association allegedly saying things like, “Why would a family with your needs buy a home in a neighborhood like ours?” and “The suburbs are probably better for you.”

The complaint alleges that after a stop work order was issued to the Deakins by the city, Bill Deakin received a text message from a former association leader. The text message allegedly had a picture of the stop work order, adding, “Welcome to old town,” the suit alleges.

The suit also alleges a member of the association came to the property when the stop work order was posted to take pictures and said, “It was my committee that had this done.”

Although the Old Town Triangle Association is vehemently opposed to the family’s plans to add a garage to the property, it is not a governing body. The Deakins have received approval from the city’s historic preservation department, the state’s historic preservation department, the city’s Department of Buildings and the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Old Town Triangle Association members have maintained the zoning dispute is not about discrimination; it’s about their fight to preserve the historic charm of the neighborhood. Members think the Deakins shouldn’t have bought a home in the Old Town Triangle if they were not ready to uphold the strict requirements that come with living in a historic district.

Amy Kurson, the attorney representing the Old Town Triangle Association, said during the 2018 zoning meetings that the Deakins’ appeal should not “tug at the board’s heartstrings.” It’s the board’s job to make a decision within the scope of zoning law, she argued.

Kurson also questioned if adding a garage would “substantially increase the value of the property.”

“Old Town has been a landmarked neighborhood since 1977,” Karen Pfendler, Old Town Triangle Association president, previously said in a written statement. “Since then, every resident has been required to forgo additions and improvements that are out of character with the district. Neighbors have chosen to live here with the understanding that the exterior of historic properties — and empty open spaces — are to remain as is.”

The rear of the 1848 N. Lincoln Ave. property, which also faces a street. Credit: Jonathan Ballew/ Block Club Chicago

Under the family’s plan, the street-level garage for the Lincoln Avenue home would face out to North Lincoln Park West, a street lined with homes and buildings. The garage would be set back 10 feet from the street and would reuse an existing 14-foot curb cut on the property.

RELATED: Historic Old Town Building Would Look ‘Horrible’ With Accessible Garage For Teen In Wheelchair, Neighbors Say

Ald. Smith, who previously lamented the inability for both sides to reach an agreement, declined to comment.

Move in delayed

Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann said the delay has been costly for the family. The family had hoped to be moved in to the Old Town property by Christmas 2018. With the stop work order in 2018 and now a judge restricting what work can be done, the Deakins said they would be lucky to move in by summer 2020.

Bill Deakin and Lisa Diehlmann purchased the home at 1848 N. Lincoln Ave. in 2015. Credit: Provided

Although the federal suit was filed by Ava’s parents, the lawsuit is in her name and it is her decision, attorney Duckett said.

“Ava has been shocked and disheartened by the ongoing discriminatory behavior. She has felt unsafe in the community,” Diehlmann said.

The Old Town Triangle Association has more than 400 voting members and more than 600 total members, according to the suit. The group regularly hires an attorney to enforce historical guidelines.

The Deakins said a few neighbors have been sympathetic and welcoming to the family, but, for the most part, they still don’t feel welcome in the neighborhood.

“We assume the neighborhood is supporting the Old Town Triangle Association’s actions because nearly all of the officers have been re-elected with little or no opposition,” Deakin said.

Despite the cold shoulder from some in the neighborhood, Diehlmann said her family is fully committed to fighting the association and eventually moving into the house.

“We’ve received every governmental go-ahead,” Diehlmann said. “We are fully in the right to do this, and we are continuing because it is the right thing to do.”

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