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Zoning Laws Can’t Exclude Group Homes High Court Makes It Tougher For Cities To Insulate Neighborhoods

Tue., May 16, 1995

The U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult Monday for counties and cities to insulate neighborhoods of singlefamily homes from becoming sites for group homes, such as those for the disabled or recovering addicts.

A federal law against discrimination in housing law does not allow local governments to exclude group homes by defining “family” so that most group homes would be shut out automatically, the Supreme Court said in its 6-3 ruling.

The Supreme Court’s decision seems to scuttle zoning ordinances in communities across the nation that seek to protect single-family communities from groups of residents who are not related to one another.

At issue in the case was an ordinance in Edmonds, Wash., which said that no group of more than five unrelated individuals could live in a house in the part of town set aside for single-family dwellings. A family of unlimited number, however, could occupy a single house there.

The case arose after executives of Oxford House Inc., a national group that sponsors dwellings for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, leased a house in a single-family neighborhood in Edmonds for such a facility.

The house was to have 10 to 12 residents - the minimum said to be needed to make it economical. Neighbors complained to zoning officials, who ruled that under local zoning law, the house could be occupied by no more than five unrelated people.

The city went to court to get its powers clarified under federal fair housing law, in particular a 1988 amendment that extended the federal ban on discrimination to homes occupied by the disabled. Recovering addicts qualify for such protection.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the Edmonds ordinance, with its definition of family, is not a maximum-occupancy law, but one that governs who may live in a single-family neighborhood. The case was sent back to lower courts to ponder.

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