An issue which comes up from time to time is the intersection between the rights of municipalities to enforce their respective zoning rules and how group homes for individuals with disabilities who require reasonable accommodations under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) are to be treated. We may obtain some new guidance on this point as earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a lawsuit against the city of San Jacinto, California alleging the city violated the FHA and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) based on its treatment of group homes for persons with disabilities.  

The action, filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, alleges that the city improperly restricted the ability of group homes for people with disabilities to operate.   The DOJ’s lawsuit further alleges that the city targeted housing for persons with disabilities for enforcement actions, including a November 2008 sweep in which officials appeared at homes unannounced and questioned residents with disabilities from a prepared questionnaire that included allegedly intrusive questions targeted to persons with mental disabilities.  The complaint also claims that the city has conditioned the grant of a reasonable accommodation on the adoption of unwarranted limitations on the residents of homes for persons with disabilities.

The complaint seeks a court order preventing the city from enforcing its laws in a way that unlawfully discriminates on the basis of disability, and prohibits the city from failing to make reasonable accommodations as well as monetary damages and a civil penalty.    

The city attorney reported that back in 2008 it updated a zoning ordinance to specify that if someone rented out rooms to two or more unrelated people, that constituted a “group” house and would not be allowed in a neighborhood zoned for single-family residences. Nevertheless, community care facilities – those licensed by the state to provide treatment and housing for the mentally ill and disabled – are permitted to operate anywhere in the city. The legal issue will likely be that group homes, which are not required to register with the state, are not permitted to operate in the city except for areas zoned for apartment buildings and multifamily housing areas. The city attorney reported that the city relied on a joint statement by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and DOJ in which it claims the city could regulate group homes if it did not discriminate against people with disabilities.