Although there is not a specific legal definition of a "group home," that term has come to commonly refer to group residential environments for people with disabilities, mental or physical.
The increase in the numbers of group homes desiring to locate in residential areas has been controversial, as have municipal attempts to regulate their location. As a result, federal and state laws have attempted to address the discrimination these homes have experienced, primarily in urban settings.
This page provides information on the various laws that apply to local regulation of group living arrangements, on how local governments have approached regulating such arrangements, and on limitations on such regulation. The recently updated paper, Regulating Group Homes in the Twenty First Century: The Limits of Municipal Authority (04/2013), by Ted Gathe, provides a particularly helpful overview of the legal issues involving the siting and regulation of group homes.
No [city/county] may enact or maintain an ordinance, development regulation, zoning regulation or official control, policy, or administrative practice which treats a residential structure occupied by persons with handicaps differently than a similar residential structure occupied by a family or other unrelated individuals. As used in this section, "handicaps" are as defined in the federal fair housing amendments act of 1988 (42 U.S.C. Sec. 3602).
An adult family home must be considered a residential use of property for zoning and public and private utility rate purposes. Adult family homes are a permitted use in all areas zoned for residential or commercial purposes, including areas zoned for single-family dwellings.
Selected Court Decisions/Attorney General Opinions
Federal Case Law
- City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, Inc., 514 U.S. 725 (1995) - FHAA violated by zoning ordinance
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the 1988 Fair Housing Act amendments prevent a city from enforcing a zoning ordinance limiting the number of unrelated persons who could live in a dwelling located in an area zoned for single family use, if no similar restrictions are imposed on all residents of all dwellings. In addition, the Court held that the FHA's exemption for local maximum occupancy restrictions, which limit the number of occupants per dwelling typically in regard to floor space or the number and type of rooms, did not apply to the city's single family zoning restrictions.
- Bay Area Addiction v. City of Antioch, 179 F.3d 725 (9th. Cir 1999) - ADA applies to zoning ordinances
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act apply to zoning ordinances.
- Gamble v. City of Escondido, 104 F.3d 300 (9th Cir. 1997) - Group home denial based on size upheld
The city denied a conditional use permit application to construct a single-family residence of 10,360 square feet with eight bedrooms and twelve bathrooms to house 15 elderly disabled adults with the lower portion serving as an adult day care facility. The basis for the denial was that the proposed building was too large for the lot and did not conform in size and bulk with neighborhood structures. The court concluded that the city’s concern for the character of the neighborhood was legitimate and nondiscriminatory.
- Children's Alliance v. City of Bellevue, 950 F. Supp. 1491 (W.D. Wa. 1997) - Group home dispersion requirement invalid
The federal district court in held that a city ordinance violated both the Fair Housing Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination in imposing burdens on group facilities for children and people with disabilities that are not placed in families, including a 1,000-foot dispersion requirement and a limit on the number of residents in certain zones.
State Case Law
- Sunderland Family Treatment Services v. Pasco, 107 Wn. App.109 (2001) - Group home for handicapped youth in a residential area
The court of appeals reversed the city's denial of a special use permit to operate a group care facility for handicapped youth in a residential area. The court held that, under RCW 35A.63.240, an ordinance governing home occupations in residential areas may not be applied differently to group care facilities for the handicapped than to "families" so as to allow the exclusion of group care facilities for the handicapped from residential neighborhoods in circumstances where "families" would not be excluded.
- Sunderland Family Treatment Services v. Pasco, 127 Wn.2d 782 (1995) - "Troubled youth" not considered handicapped
The state supreme court has ruled that the fair housing protections for the handicapped in RCW 35A.63.240 did not extend to "troubled youth" staying in a "crisis residential center" located in a residential neighborhood. The definition of "handicap" does not include an impairment resulting from environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.
Attorney General Opinions
- AGO 1992 No. 25 - preemption of zoning ordinances related to state-licensed residential care facilities
RCW 70.128.175(2) provides that adult family homes shall be permitted uses in all areas zoned for residential or commercial purposes, and it preempts local zoning ordinances that prohibit the location of an adult family home within a certain distance of other similar facilities. The fact that the state licenses residential care facilities, other than adult family homes, does not in and of itself preempt local zoning ordinances that prohibit the location of such facilities within a certain distance of other similar facilities.
- Bellevue Municipal Code
- Bothell Municipal Code Sec. 12.06.140.B.9 - Residential uses, Reasonable accommodation
- Edmonds Municipal Code
- Issaquah Municipal Code Sec. 18.07.400 - Reasonable accommodation
- Mercer Island Municipal Code Sec. 19.01.030 - Reasonable accommodation
- Redmond Municipal Code Sec. 20F.40.100 - Reasonable Accommodations for Persons with Disabilities
- SeaTac Municipal Code
- Seattle Municipal Code Sec. 23.40.040 - Reasonable accommodation
- Snohomish County Code Ch. 30.43E - Reasonable Accomodation
- Regulating Group Homes in the Twenty First Century: The Limits of Municipal Authority, by Ted Gathe, City Attorney of Vancouver, April 2013 (posted with permission of the author) - This paper provides an overview of the legal issues related to the siting and regulation of group homes. It discusses court decisions about various approaches that local governments have used to regulate group homes, and the resulting limits on the use of such regulations.
- Group Homes, Local Land Use, and the Fair Housing Act, Joint Statement of the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, August 18, 1999 - This still relevant joint statement addresses the Fair Housing Act's effect on the ability of local governments to exercise control over group living arrangements, particularly for persons with disabilities, in a helpful questions and answer format.
- Discriminatory Zoning and the Fair Housing Act, Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, February 2007 - Written from the perspective of disability rights advocates, this document provides helpful summaries of and citations to case law dealing with local government regulation, particularly zoning, of group homes.