By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
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By Patricia Calhoun
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Montview Heights is a sizable apartment complex in Aurora, with fifty units that are, at least from the outside, similar to one another: modest, two-story, single-family dwellings, each with a small front and back yard. Like the buildings they live in, Montview's tenants -- a racially mixed group -- have much in common: Most are lower-income, working single mothers who've been drawn to Aurora Heights by its openness to federally subsidized Section 8 renters. Children live in every unit.
When the weather is good, a playground in the middle of the property becomes the center of the younger kids' world. Barbecues, picnics and birthday parties are a regular part of life.
At least until 8 p.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. on weekends.
Since Montview Heights opened in 1978, it has enforced a curfew that dictates when children under eighteen may be seen and heard. Under the policy, kids are required to be inside their homes unless they're accompanied by an adult -- not playing in their back yards, not in the grassy areas between buildings, not on their front steps. Parents are required to sign contracts agreeing to the terms of the curfew; if their children violate those terms, the parents are issued "tickets" by longtime on-site manager Alice Robinson and her staff. After three infractions, families are threatened with eviction.
Some tenants, including Robinson, believe the policy is necessary to keep the peace in a place that, since its beginnings, has been a regular stopping point for Aurora cops responding to calls of vandalism, drug activity and domestic violence. The situation has improved in the past decade, but it still has a long way to go, says Stuart Heller of the Monroe Group, the property-management company that oversees Montview Heights as well as four adult-living facilities in Colorado. Besides, he adds, although some families have received numerous tickets, no one has ever been evicted as a result of the curfew.
"When we took over the project nine years ago, it was drug-infested," Heller explains. "There were gangbangers...hypo needles all through the parking lot. It has been cleaned up substantially, but it's far from a perfect environment."
Very far from perfect, say some residents, especially those with younger children who have been ticketed for such innocuous contraventions as walking to the laundry room for a soda or playing with their siblings in their own back yards. While the curfew is designed to target "unsupervised" children, some adults say they've been cited for violations that occurred when they were only a few feet from their kids -- inside an open door, for example.
Tenants also complain about Robinson's methods of curfew enforcement, which they say are often less than subtle. She's been known to wander through the complex shouting "Curfew time" over and over. When it's cold, she sometimes hollers the warning from the second floor of her apartment.
"I hate to say it, but it feels like hell sometimes," says Ramona Gavin, a 42-year-old preschool teacher and single mother of three who has lived in Montview Heights for seven years. "You shouldn't want to not come home. But that's how you feel when you're wandering up to your door, wondering what ticket is going to be taped onto it this time."
Gavin has received numerous tickets for curfew violations committed by her children: Marcus, who is four, and Shealean, who is eight. One was for allowing her children to be in the front yard after 9 p.m. on a still-light May evening last year; another was for allowing guests at Marcus's fourth birthday party to linger outdoors after hours.
Last month, Gavin and a small group of Montview mothers -- along with Housing for All, a Denver nonprofit organization -- took the matter outside the apartment complex and into the courts. Rather than press their concerns with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development -- the standard procedure for Section 8 tenants with grievances -- they filed a complaint in federal district court that charges Robinson, the Monroe Group and the Aurora Montview Heights Limited Partnership, which owns the property, with violating the Fair Housing Act .
At the time of its passage in the late 1960s, the act was intended primarily to combat racial discrimination. Since then, it has become a tool for people whose access to housing is illegally hindered because of disability, religion, sex or family status; unmarried couples, families with children and same-sex couples are all protected under the FHA.
The Montview Heights lawsuit uses this last provision of the act to argue that the complex's residents are limited in their ability to freely use and enjoy their homes and surroundings with their curfew-bound kids.
"These people have the right to be free of housing discrimination that's based on their family, which is the same as the right to be free of housing discrimination for reasons of race, gender or anything else," says attorney Amy Robertson, who is representing the tenants and Housing for All. "That's like saying, 'Okay, we need you to sign a piece of paper that says you will never have black guests over for dinner.' You just cannot have that kind of imposition on your civil rights."