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Group Homes

This page provides information on the various laws that apply to local regulation of group living arrangements in Washington State, how local governments have approached regulating such arrangements, and the limitations on such regulation.


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.

For a helpful overview of the legal issues involving the siting and regulation of group homes, see this article by Ted Gathe, former city attorney of Vancouver, Regulating Group Homes in the Twenty First Century: The Limits of Municipal Authority (2013).


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.

Examples of Codes

Court Decisions and Attorney General Opinions

Federal Case Law

FHAA violated by zoning ordinance

City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, Inc., 514 U.S. 725 (1995) – 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.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to zoning ordinances

Bay Area Addiction v. City of Antioch, 179 F.3d 725 (9th. Cir 1999) – 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.

Group home denial based on size upheld

Gamble v. City of Escondido, 104 F.3d 300 (9th Cir. 1997) – 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.

Group home dispersion requirement invalid

Children's Alliance v. City of Bellevue, 950 F. Supp. 1491 (W.D. Wa. 1997) – The federal district court held that a city ordinance violated both the Fair Housing Act and the Washington Law Against Discrimination by 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

Group home for handicapped youth in a residential area

Sunderland Family Treatment Services v. Pasco, 107 Wn. App.109 (2001) - 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.

"Troubled youth" not considered handicapped

Sunderland Family Treatment Services v. Pasco, 127 Wn.2d 782 (1995) - 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

Preemption of zoning ordinances related to state-licensed residential care facilities

AGO 1992 No. 25:

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.

Recommended Resources

Last Modified: January 24, 2023