Posted by: Patricia Salkin | June 9, 2010

Group Home Regulations Addressing Desirability of Homes in Area, Presence of Certified Site Manager, Limitations on Individuals Receiving Treatment in the Home and Licensing Violates Federal Fair Housing Act

Two sets of plaintiffs brought facial challenges to a Suffolk County (NY) regulation dealing with substance abuse recovery housing in the County. Plaintiffs alleged violations of the federal and state constitutions, the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Americas with Disabilities Act, and numerous provisions of state law. Plaintiff Oxford House is an umbrella organization of a network of self run recovery houses for people who have substance and alcohol abuse problems. The houses are democratically run, financially self supported, allow for the group to expel house members who use alcohol or other substances, and are monitored by the organization. The Oxford House leases a residence in Suffolk County. The district court concluded that the Oxford House plaintiffs have standing under the FHA even though actual discrimination had not occurred, since the FHA affords standing to those who believe a discriminatory housing practice is about to occur. Oxford House has standing on behalf of its members. The Reynolds plaintiffs are individuals who have participated in affiliated substance abuse programs in Suffolk County. The court ruled these plaintiffs have standing due to the fact that they would be affected by the regulation.

 Provisions of the Suffolk County Code § 450 state that there must be a notice and approval procedure to ascertain the desirability of the house in the area selected, that each house must have a certified site manager, that only six individuals receiving substance abuse treatment may be in the house, and a licensing requirement includes a fee and an inspection. TheCourt stated that since this statute facially discriminates against disabled individuals and subjects this group to a burden, it is subject to heightened scrutiny under the FHA.

The Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 includes provisions for federal protections against housing discrimination to individuals who are disabled. The court concluded that the act applies to the plaintiffs because persons recovering from alcoholism or drug addiction and are limited in their life activities, are considered disabled under the Fair Housing Act, including residents of halfway houses. The Court stated the defendants violated the Fair Housing Act because the Act does not allow for land use regulations to be applied in such a way that they exclude those with disabilities, nor does it allow regulations that give disabled people less opportunity to live in their desired area.

In the present case, the plaintiff has the burden to present evidence showing animus against the group was a significant factor for the municipality when constructing the statute. Once that burden is satisfied, the burden shifts to the defendant to show a legitimate and nondiscriminatory government interest in their regulation. The plaintiff established the defendants’ animus by showing the regulation is facially discriminatory, singles out a group, and does not impose restrictions on other groups.

The plaintiffs and the defendant agree that the defendant needs to show proper justification for their regulations. The court stated that heightened scrutiny is to be used in Fair Housing Act claims when the plaintiff shows prima facia discrimination. The defendant has to show a legitimate, bona fide, government interest, and also that there is no alternative with less effect to the affected group. The court outright rejected the rational basis standard, for they felt it would undermine the Fair Housing Act.

Under the heightened scrutiny test, the court found the defendant did not meet the requirement because the evidence did not support any justification, and also because the provisions were not narrowly tailored.

With respect to the site location provision, the defendant stated it enacted the legislation to equally distribute the substance abuse recovery houses, basing this assertion on the testimony of a resident of a neighborhood, a legislator, and of one of the Reynolds plaintiffs. The court found this evidence was insufficient because, it does not show how the reduction of clustering benefits the affected group, and the Fair Housing Act was enacted to allow people to live where they wished. The reduction of clustering was deemed not to be a legitimate government interest.

The defendant stated the site manager provision was aimed at supporting the residents of the house. The defendant offered no evidence showing the need for this provision. Due to the lack of evidence, the court found there was no legitimate governmental interest. This lack of justification also precludes any finding of narrow tailoring, for the site manager provision is a blanket requirement over all of the houses, making no exceptions based on the particular type of abuse recovery present in each house.

Addressing the provision requiring occupancy of the houses not to exceed six people, the defendant stated it is to protect against overcrowding, ensure supervision, and avoid excessive debris accumulation. The defendant provided evidence in the form of 4,000 petitions in support of the law, testimony regarding public urination and a stabbing, and an alleged suicide attempt of a member of a substance abuse house. The court found that this was not legally sufficient to satisfy heightened scrutiny, for the democratic process alone is not sufficient justification. Also, this provision is not narrowly tailored because it does not show how the six person limit furthers the stated interest. 

The defendant stated the licensing requirement provision was necessary to ensure that local law and occupancy limits were adhered to. Testimony provided by the defendant indicated that the substance abuse houses where slums and only out to make a quick buck. Assuming this to be true, the Court found that the provision is not narrowly tailored and does not pass heightened scrutiny because the defendant provided no evidence that this class of people is particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous landlords in a manner than necessitates the terms of the provision.

Furthermore, the defendant conceded that no study was done to document behavior problems of substance abuse house members.

Human Resource and Management Group, Inc v. County of Suffolk v. Suffolk County Department of Social Services, and Suffolk County Department of Health Services, 2010 WL 547606 (E.D.N.Y. 2/17/2010).

This decision can be accessed here


Responses

  1. This case vividly illustrates how a government can blow it when it establishes regulations governing the location of community residences — in this instance recovery communities — by failing to base the regulations on careful research. In just about every court decision that has thrown out zoning controls to prevent clustering of community residences, the offending community had failed to base its zoning controls on careful, thorough research that does, indeed, provide a sound, rational basis for reasonable spacing distances, for example. Preventing clustering is easily justified because clustering interferes with the two fundamental purposes of a community residence: normalization and community integration.

    The decision also illustrates how a local government can go way too far in the regulations it imposes. The the limitation on the number of residents is simply unjustifiable in light of all we know about recovery communities (they need 8 to 12 residents for both therapeutic and financial reasons).

    It’s a shame that these cities fail to follow sound planning principles to thoroughly research and document the need for some reasonable restrictions. Unfortunately the judicial system is not designed to promote sound planning and zoning practices. Instead it promotes each side doing all it can to win, sound planning and zoning be damned! So all too often rational and justifiable zoning regulations for community residences get thrown out in court because the jurisdiction that adopted them failed to assemble the expert testimony and research that fully justifies the regulations.


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