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Supreme Court Decides Important Case

Zoning ordinances that limit housing in particular communities to single-family residences frequently function as barriers to group homes and other types of congregate housing arrangements for persons with severe mental illness. However, a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court will limit the extent to which communities will be able to use single-family zoning ordinances to prevent group homes in the future.

The case decided by the Supreme Court, City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, involved a group home opened for 10 to 12 adults recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction in the city of Edmonds, Washington. The city sought to block the group home, citing the local zoning code rule that limited housing in the particular neighborhood to "single-family dwelling units."

Under this rule, single-family dwelling units can be occupied only by "two or more persons related by genetics, adoption, or marriage, or a group of five or fewer persons who are not related by genetics, adoption, or marriage." Since this particular group home was opened to house at least 10 persons, the city argued that it did not conform to the code and therefore could not be opened.

Oxford House asked the city to provide a reasonable accommodation by allowing it to remain in the dwelling it had already leased and opened. The city declined and filed a lawsuit against Oxford House seeking a declaration that the Federal Fair Housing Act does not prohibit cities from acting to prevent the operation of group homes in areas zoned as single family only.

The Fair Housing Act declares it unlawful "to discriminate in the sale or rental, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap of...that buyer or renter." The city asserted that the single-family requirement in its zoning code was a permissible exception to the general prohibitions against discrimination in the Fair Housing Act. That act creates an exemption for "reasonable...restrictions regarding the maximum number of occupants permitted to occupy a building."

Oxford House argued that the city's restrictive single-family requirement did not fall within permissible exceptions to the Fair Housing Act. Additionally, Oxford House counterclaimed, charging the city with failure to provide a reasonable accommodation permitting it to keep the group home open, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

The District Court ruled in favor of the city, but the Court of Appeals for the Ninth (federal) Circuit reversed, thereby ruling in favor of Oxford House. Because the Ninth Circuit's decision conflicted with an Eleventh Circuit decision in a similar case, the Supreme Court accepted jurisdiction to resolve the conflict.

The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal's decision. The court acknowledged that rules restricting the maximum number of occupants who may occupy a dwelling ("maximum occupancy restrictions") are exempted from the Fair Housing Act.

That is, these rules are permissible, even if their effect is to impose limitations or restrictions on group homes. However, these rules must be narrowly written to "protect health and safety by preventing dwelling overcrowding." Moreover, these rules must apply "uniformly to all residents of all dwelling units."

In this case, the court characterized the city's zoning ordinance as a "land-use restriction," rather than a "maximum-occupancy restriction." These types of rules, the court explained, which are intended to "preserve the character of neighborhoods," do not fall within the absolute exemption contained in the Fair Housing Act. Therefore, these rules, which have the effect of restricting or prohibiting group homes and other housing for persons with disabilities, violate the anti-discrimination requirements of the Fair Housing Act.

The court's decision was influenced by its awareness that the limitation in the zoning ordinance on the maximum number of persons who could reside in one dwelling (five) applied only to unrelated persons. There was no similar limit on the number of people related by "genetics, adoption, or marriage" who could reside in one dwelling. Consequently, it seemed clear to the court that the primary intent of the ordinance was to preserve the character of the neighborhood, not to protect the health and welfare of the community by protecting against overcrowding within dwellings.

The Edmonds decision represents a significant victory for advocates for community-based housing for persons with mental illness and other disabilities. As a result of this decision, opponents of group homes will find it far more difficult in the future to use restrictive zoning ordinances or rules as a legal basis for their opposition. Supreme Court decisions establish national precedent binding on all other courts.

Therefore, NAMI advocates encountering opposition to group homes based on restrictive zoning ordinances should not hesitate to request immediate review to determine whether the particular ordinance or rule complies with the principals set forth in the Edmonds case. Legal assistance in fair-housing cases is frequently available through local legal aid societies or through the State Protection and Advocacy Agency. Additionally, assistance may be obtained through state and local fair-housing enforcement agencies. A list of these agencies is available from the NAMI Office of Legal Affairs.

Please notify Ron Honberg at NAMI (202/524-7600) if restricted ordinances are proposed in your local area.

by Ron Honberg
Director, NAMI Legal Affairs

(The Edmonds decision represents a significant victory for advocates for community-based housing for persons with mental illness and other disabilities.)