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."
Parents and guardians are the ones who have the ability -- some might say the obligation -- to impose a curfew on their own children, she says. State and local governments also have this ability: In Aurora, minors are required to pack it in at 11 p.m. on weeknights and midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, with exceptions made for emergency situations and some late-night travel (for example, driving to and from work or certain extracurricular functions, like church events).
That same authority does not extend as freely to private businesses, according to the FHA. Only certain types of covenant communities -- such as retirement complexes designed for people over 55 -- may regulate the comings and goings of individuals and impose age requirements. Additionally, age-specific regulations may be put in place to act as safety measures under certain circumstances.
That's where things get muddy in the Montview case. Robertson say there's nothing from which Montview children need protection at all times, and she regards the curfew as an abuse of the housing act's safety provisions. "Those restrictions have to be something very directly, and entirely, related to safety," she says. "For example, if you have a swimming pool, you can say that a young person needs to be accompanied by an adult so that they don't drown. You cannot say 'No kids in the pool.'
"It seems like the Montview management is using a cannon to shoot a gnat," she adds. "If there are one or two kids who are causing trouble, they should be disciplined. But you can't just turn every kid into a bad guy and tell them to stay inside. Beyond its civil rights implications, it's just not good for the community."
Heller, on the other hand, insists that the volatility of the Montview environment necessitates some kind of overarching policy. "Things have gotten much better," he says, "and that's partly as a result of the curfew -- and partly as a result of our maintaining the house rules that the tenants agree to and comply with. [But] there are shootings; there was a firebomb there last month. We're just trying to keep the children safe."
Aurora city attorney Charlie Richardson says his office concentrates on enforcing its own youth-centric laws rather than the policies of private businesses. Because he hasn't received any complaints from Montview tenants, he says, he's never researched the legality of the complex's curfew. But Dave Lather, of the City of Aurora's Community Outreach Office, has spent a fair amount of time mulling over Montview in recent years. He says its status as a police hot spot has softened over the past couple of years. Three years ago, Lather, who teaches the owners and operators of troubled apartment communities about what measures they can take to minimize crime, led a training program for Montview's management that emphasized tenant screening and house rules, a system that seemed to work.
"They had had a number of problems with juveniles," he recalls. "There were allegations of drug dealing and gang involvement. We actively monitored the property, but with the efforts put in place by the management following our training, we were able to remove them from that special-monitoring status. Their crime calls were reduced by 50 percent."
Lather says he wasn't aware of the curfew during that training. "I think that kind of thing goes beyond what we, as a city, felt was appropriate or necessary," he adds. "As a city employee, I'm always thinking of issues from the standpoint of government and the constitutionality of certain things. We have to find the least restrictive method we can when it comes to placing regulations on citizens. But private industry is not held to that same standard."
Gavin acknowledges that the complex has seen its share of youth-related trouble over the year, but she says the curfew steps on her right to set rules and conduct her own parenting. She signed the contract agreeing to the terms of the curfew begrudgingly, she adds, and only because she was worried about finding a place to live.
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Moving out isn't really an option, either. "People ask me all the time, 'Why don't you just get out of there?'" Gavin says. "But, being straight, I can't really afford it -- I'm a single mom just trying to get on. But even if I could, I don't think I would. At this point, it's about standing up and fighting."
Because of the lawsuit, Gavin and Robinson no longer speak or even acknowledge each other when they pass in the halls or in the parking lot. Gavin concedes that Robinson's "policing" of the complex has been less intense in the past couple of months, however. "It's been cold," she says.
Now, with spring in full swing, the days will get longer -- which means kids will stay out later and tickets are likely to come faster.
"My son's fifth birthday is in May, and no one is going to stop me from having a party," Gavin says. "I mean, it's my own yard. I love to be outside. I've got a beautiful view when the sun sets. My kids love to be outside. Why would someone want to take away something so simple from my family?"