Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 4, 2021

PA Appeals Court Holds Definition of Family Does Not Apply to Those Who are Disabled/ Handicapped Under the Fair Housing Act

This post was authored by Matthew Loescher, Esq.

Cornerstone owned a property located in a residential area, zoned as an R-2 medium density zoning district. The property consisted of a single-family dwelling, which was a permitted use in the R-2 zoning district. Cornerstone sought to utilize the property to provide residential living in a single-family setting to those who were disabled, as defined by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and in need of a residence to live independently as they recovered from drug and/or alcohol addiction. As such, Cornerstone filed an application with the City’s Zoning Officer seeking an occupancy permit for a single-family dwelling on the property. The Board failed to conduct a hearing within 60 days as required by the Pennsylvania Municipalities Planning Code (MPC), and Cornerstone filed a complaint in mandamus against the Board seeking a deemed approval. Additionally, Cornerstone provided public notice of the deemed approval through newspaper advertisements and a posting on the premises. The City responded by filing a land use appeal with the trial court. The trial court found in favor of Cornerstone and the City appealed.

On appeal, the City argued that the trial court erred by failing to apply a de novo standard of review. The court found that a plain reading of the trial court’s decision reflected that findings of fact and conclusions of law were made in its determination that “the proposed use fits the definition of a single-family use.” The trial court also explicitly stated in the first sentence of its opinion that it was required to make findings of fact and conclusions of law because of the deemed approval.

As the Ordinance explicitly stated that the restrictions in the definition of family would not apply to those who are disabled/handicapped under the Fair Housing Act, the restriction against five unrelated persons living together did not apply. With regard to Cornerstone charging residents for expenses, the court found that the fact that Cornerstone would charge a fee did not transform its use. Here, Cornerstone stated that it would charge “expenses as necessary.” The court found that the charging of expenses as necessary alone did not indicate a profit motive, and paying a fee was akin to adult family members contributing to a household. Moreover, the definition of family stated that a family could be “up to five unrelated individuals who maintain a common household.”

The City lastly contended that conclusions and allegations in Cornerstone’s application were insufficient to prove an individual was handicapped under the Fair Housing Act, and that actual evidence must be presented. Here, however, as the City failed to request the evidence it deemed necessary, and had the opportunity to obtain additional evidence before the trial court, the City was found to have waived its argument that the evidence in this case was insufficient. Accordingly, the order of the trial court was affirmed.

City of Clairton, PA v Zoning Hearing Board of the City of Clairton, PA, 2021 WL 382963 (PA Cmwlth 2/4/2021)

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