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Judge cites conflict, steps aside in Valpo affordable housing dispute
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Judge cites conflict, steps aside in Valpo affordable housing dispute

Porter County Courthouse stock

The southern side of the Porter County Courthouse is shown.

VALPARAISO — A county-level judge cited a conflict in his decision to pass on hearing a civil dispute over a local affordable housing project.

Porter Superior Court Judge Mike Fish, who took over at the start of the new year for retired Judge Roger Bradford, did not elaborate on this conflict.

But he said in his order of recusal that the two sides in the dispute have seven days to agree on a new judge or a special judge will be appointed.

No new judge had been named as of Tuesday morning, according to court records.

The case in question is JJD Properties versus Valparaiso Board of Zoning Appeals, Housing Opportunities and Neighbors Corp.

The suit centers on a proposed 16-unit efficiency apartment building pitched for a vacant lot at 908 Franklin St. that proponents say would fill a much-needed gap for affordable housing for individuals, particularly men and veterans.

Each of the 300-square-foot apartments would include a shared sleeping and sitting room, kitchenette and separate bathroom for between $450 and $500 a month, said Paul Schreiner, executive director of Project Neighbors.

That monthly rental fee would include heat, water, electrical, Wi-Fi and shared television service.

The proposal, a cooperative effort by Project Neighbors and the local Housing Opportunities, was approved by the city's BZA this summer.

The owner of property immediately to the north, identified in documents as Jeff DeRubbo operating as JJD Properties LLC, stopped the momentum on Sept. 25 by filing a lawsuit seeking to reverse the BZA's decision.

The lawsuit argues there was deficient findings of fact for the variances and no substantial evidence supporting the variances.

DeRubbo has declined to comment when contacted by The Times.

But in a letter to the city ahead of the BZA meeting, he said he decided to purchase his two commercial buildings at 104 and 200 Billings St. in 2015 after researching and learning the property to the south was zoned general commercial.

He said he invested more than $250,000 to rehabilitate his buildings and they have remained rented for the past four years.

"I do not understand why the city would want a multifamily building built directly by the railroad tracks," he wrote. "The noise pollution is extremely loud and the lot was once used to repair oil containers."

DeRubbo raised concerns about the environmental impact of the former business and trains on the soil in the area.

Housing Opportunities CEO Jordan Stanfill confirmed that tents and sleeping bags are provided for some seeking housing when, more often than not, there are no vacant beds available at the shelter at 2001 N. Calumet Ave. in Valparaiso and when other housing options are unavailable.

The situation is particularly dire for single men, who account for 80% of the homeless population in Porter and LaPorte counties, he said.

It was estimated that there were 83 people living outside last year in Porter County, primarily in the Valparaiso area, Stanfill said.

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.

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