Supreme Court Rules Cities Can't Bar Group Homes for Disabled

Cities cannot use single-family zoning to bar group homes for disabled people, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in May. The Court said cities could not enforce occupancy limits in a discriminatory way to exclude the disabled including recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

In a dispute over the application of the Fair Housing act, the court said communities may set occupancy limits, space requirements and other restrictions on houses occupied by unrelated people, like group homes, but only if they also apply to everyone living in the area.

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to bar discrimination in housing on the basis of race and amended it in 1988 to extend its coverage to people with disabilities. The amended Act makes it illegal to refuse to make "reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices or services" to disabled renters or buyers. This has been defined to include sufferers from alcoholism and drug addiction

The amended law gave cities an exemption for any "reasonable" restriction on the "number of occupants permitted to occupy a dwelling." That wording raised the question of whether the new nondiscrimination requirement had any application in the single-family residential zones that dominated much of the suburban landscape. Lower Federal courts had split.

The opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the exemption did not permit cities to close their single-family zones to group homes. She said, the restrictions that the Fair Housing Act exempted were only those that"apply uniformly to all residents of all dwelling units."

Decision Endorsed Clinton Administration's View

The decision, which endorsed the Clinton administration's view of the Fair Housing Act, rejected an appeal by the City of Edmonds, Washington, of a ruling last year by the United State Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.

Edmonds placed no limit on the number of related people who could share a house in its single-family zone, but it limited the number of unrelated people to five. When a national organization, Oxford House, rented a house in the area and opened a group home for 10 to 12 recovering alcoholics and addicts, the city brought criminal charges and sought a court declaration that its zoning provision was exempt from the Fair Housing Act.

City Planning Not Exempt From Fair Housing Act

The city initially won in Federal District Court in Seattle before losing in the appeals court. The Supreme court upheld the Ninth Circuit in ruling the city is nonexempt from the Fair Housing Act. The case goes back to the District Court to decide whether the city's actions violated the act.

Oxford House, Inc., a nonprofit corporation in Silver spring, Maryland, has established 556 group homes in 36 states for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Justice Ginsberg emphasized throughout her opinion that the question for the Court was the narrow one of deciphering the meaning of the act's exemption. She said the Fair Housing Act requires only that accommodations to the handicapped be "reasonable," but she did not define what a "reasonable" accommodation might be.

Court's First Interpretation of Fair Housing Act

Because this was the Court's first opportunity to consider the amended Fair Housing Act, the case attracted widespread attention from groups representing those with retardation and the elderly, as well as organizations involved with alcoholism and drug abuse.

The city argued strenuously that the long history of single-family zoning and the special constitutional status the Supreme Court has accorded to the family made it reasonable to apply special limits in such zones.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, argued in a friend-of-the-court brief that the Court of Appeals decision interpreting the Fair Housing Act went beyond the power of Congress. They tried to apply language like that used by the Supreme Court in an April decision that a Federal ban on possessing guns near schools exceeded the power of Congress to regulate commerce.

The three Justices who dissented, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, and Anthony Kennedy, did not completely accept that analysis. Their dissent written by Justice Thomas, argued that the Fair Housing Act exemption of local occupancy restrictions should be read broadly and not narrowly as the majority read it. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist joined the majority opinion, as did Justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer.