The Fair Housing Amendments Act
Both federal and state laws protect people with mental illness and other disabilities against housing discrimination. In 1988 Congress passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA). (1) Ohio also has passed a very similar law prohibiting housing discrimination against people with disabilities. (2)
These federal and state laws provide a number of basic fair housing protections. They make it illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing to a person because of disability. They make it illegal to deny the sale or rental of housing to a person because of his or her association with a person who has a disability. They provide that it is discriminatory to refuse to make reasonable accommodations in rules or policies when such accommodations may be necessary to afford people with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling. (3) These laws also make it illegal for anyone to coerce, intimidate, threaten or interfere with any person who exercises his or her rights under the fair housing laws. (4)
The FHAA was passed with two purposes in mind. The first was to enable people with disabilities to obtain housing free from discrimination in the communities of their choice. The second was to increase access to community housing to integrate people with disabilities into the mainstream of American life.
Housing Discrimination and People with Mental Illness
Many people with mental illness have lived in institutions for prolonged periods of time because few alternatives to institutionalization exist. Like most Americans, however, they want a life style which offers as much independence as possible.
When people with mental illness do leave institutions to return to their communities, they sometimes live in small so-called "group home" settings where several people share a house. Unfortunately, they often have encountered resistance rather than acceptance when they want to move into a group home in the community. Cities have tried to exclude group homes from community residential neighborhoods by invoking strict zoning ordinances. Property owners have tried to use restrictive covenants in deeds to keep group homes for people with disabilities out of their neighborhoods.
Opponents usually rely on zoning ordinances, or restrictive covenants that define "family" home in a way that does not include unrelated people who live together. People who want to keep group homes out of their neighborhoods have also tried to enforce zoning laws or restrictive covenants that limit the number of people who can share a "family" home. Sometimes opponents attempt to argue that group homes are commercial or business ventures that should not be allowed in areas zoned for residential use only.
Housing Discrimination Court Decisions in Ohio
These efforts virtually always fail because courts strike down zoning laws and restrictive covenants when they are used to discriminate against people with disabilities. There are many Ohio court decisions which stress that the meaning of "family" or "residential" is broad and inclusive, not narrow and exclusive. In one northeastern Ohio case the court said that a group home was as much a "family housekeeping unit" as any more traditional home. The judge also rejected the argument that having a group home run by an operator made it a commercial business rather than a family home. The court put it this way: "It does not make that unit non-private any more than (any) resident, engaged in business, who does his housekeeping at home." (5)
Judges also protected the basic right of six women with mental disabilities to share a home built in a suburban Cincinnati subdivision. Some neighbors tried to say this was not a permitted "family" home under the restrictive covenant for the property, but the court rejected this interpretation as discriminatory. The judges recognized that these women were a "family" in the true sense of that word: "[They seek to emulate … that traditional American family life which those more fortunate among us are able to experience. Indeed, the family home they mean to create not only contrasts starkly with living in a large institution but also will replace the biological family that for one reason or another is not now available to them." (6)
Courts also have stepped in to prevent overzealous enforcement of building, safety and zoning laws against group homes. For example, when the city of Stow, Ohio imposed special building and safety requirements on group homes, the court struck this down as discriminatory. (7) Another court also struck down a county zoning law which required only group home operators to give advance notice and invite comments from property owners and civic organizations when they planned to operate a group home in the community. As the judge wrote in this case: "The neighbor notification rule, and the defendants' purported justifications for it, necessarily assume that people with disabilities are different from people without disabilities and must take special steps to 'become a part of the community.' This requirement is equally offensive as would be a rule that a minority family must give notification and invite comment before moving into a predominately white neighborhood." (8)
Group home opponents also have tried to exclude people with mental illness by using scare tactics about dangerousness and declining property values. Again, these arguments almost never succeed because they simply are not true. Courts have little patience when opponents offer only their own "stereotypical notions and erroneous perceptions" that group home residents present a danger: "Intentional discrimination can include actions motivated by stereotypes, unfounded fears, misperceptions, and archaic attitudes, as well as simple prejudice about people with disabilities." (9)
Moreover, there is no evidence to support the assertion that group homes cause property values to fall. In fact, all of the evidence is to the contrary. Studies have been done of neighborhoods in Columbus, Philadelphia, Lansing, upstate and Long Island, N.Y. and Princeton, N.J. where group homes for people with disabilities were located. Not only did property values not go down, in many instances property values actually rose. (10)
It also is important to understand that fair housing laws provide ways for people with disabilities to take affirmative action against discriminatory tactics. Opponents who discriminate against people with disabilities do have the constitutional right of free speech and protest, however misguided or offensive that might be. But their activities sometimes can move beyond protected speech to coercion, threats, intimidation or interference. Activities considered to be illegal under the FHAA run the gamut from overt acts such as threats, bombings, and vandalism "to less obvious, but equally illegal, practices such as exclusionary zoning… deflating appraisals because of discriminatory animus… and insurance redlining." (11) If opponents' activities are illegal, then they can be sued under FHAA. (12)
Opponents who misuse the legal system also can be liable under the FHAA. In one case the court allowed the Justice Department to sue a group of property owners who had filed a meritless lawsuit to prevent people with disabilities from living in a group home. The court said the property owners' legal action amounted to discriminatory interference with fair housing rights. (13)
Federal and state fair housing laws provide several remedies for discrimination. These remedies are available both to people with disabilities and to those associated with people who have disabilities. One avenue is to file a discrimination complaint with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the department which is responsible for enforcement of the FHAA. The complaint must be filed within one year of the time the discriminatory housing practice occurred. The complaint can be filed online, in person or mailed to: Fair Housing, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C. 20410. You also may provide information to be put in a complaint by telephone to any Regional or Field Office of HUD. (14) HUD will investigate the complaint, determine if there is reasonable cause to believe discrimination occurred and try to negotiate a resolution. If that fails, HUD can bring a civil action under the FHAA against the offending party. (15)
Another avenue is to file a lawsuit in court directly against the party who is violating the fair housing laws. Advocacy groups can bring suits on behalf of the constituencies they represent. (16) If the suit is brought under the FHAA it should be filed in federal court within two years of the date the discriminatory housing practice occurred. (17) If the suit is brought under Ohio's fair housing law it can be filed in the Common Pleas Court of the county where the discriminatory housing practice occurred. A lawsuit under the state fair housing laws must be filed within one year of the date the discrimination occurred. (18) Punitive damages, compensatory damages, court costs and attorneys fees can be awarded if you prevail in the lawsuit.
Many plaintiffs have been successful in enforcing their rights under the fair housing laws. When opponents of group homes wage vocal campaigns based on irrational fears, misinformation and prejudice, courts consistently intervene to preserve the rights of people with mental illness and other disabilities to live in the communities of their choice.
Citations and Endnotes
1. 42 U.S.C. §§ 3601 - 3631. [Return to text]
2. O.R.C. § 4112.02. [Return to text]
3. 42 U.S.C. § 3604; O.R.C. § 4112.02(H). [Return to text]
4. 42 U.S.C. § 3617; O.R.C. § 4112.02(H)(12). [Return to text]
5. Beres v. Hope Homes, Inc., 453 N.E. 2d 1119, 1122 (Ohio App. 1982). [Return to text]
6. Concerned Citizens of Timberchase, et al. v. Morris Construction Co., et al., Hamilton App. Nos. C-830180, C-830261, C-830302 (Dec. 28, 1983), unreported, at pages 9 - 10. [Return to text]
7. Marbrunak v. City of Stow, 974 F. 2d 43 (6th Cir. 1992). [Return to text]
8. Potomac Group Homes Corp. v. Montgomery County, Maryland, 823 F. Supp. 1285 (D.Md. 1993). [Return to text]
9. United States v. City of Taylor, 872 F. Supp. 423, 431, 432 (ED. Mich. 1995). [Return to text]
10. See, e.g., The Non-Effect of Group Homes on Neighboring Residential Property Values in Franklin County, Metropolitan Human Services Commission (August 1979); Breslow and Dear, Impact of Mental Health Facilities on Property Values, 13 Community Mental Health Journal 150 (1977); The Influence of Halfway Houses and Foster Care Facilities Upon Property Values, City of Lansing Planning Department (1976); The Effect of Community Residences for the Mentally Retarded on Real Estate in the Neighborhoods in Which They are Located, State University of New York at Brockport (1980) (showing that average home selling price rose 9 percent one year after the group home operated); The Effect of Siting Group Homes on the Surrounding Environs, Princeton University (1976) (property values increased in 15 of 16 samples); D. Arens, What do the Neighbors Think Now? Community Residences on Long Island, New York, 29:3 Community Mental Health Journal 235 (June 1993); Contested Terrain: Power, Politics and Participation in Suburbia 133 (1995). [Return to text]
11. Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service v. Babin, 18 F. 3d 337, 347 (6th Cir. 1994). [Return to text]
12. The FHAA even provides for fines and imprisonment for those who, by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate or interfere with any person who is exercising rights protected by the Act or any person who willfully attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with a person exercising rights under the Act. 42 U.S.C. § 3631. [Return to text]
13. United States v. Scott, 788 F. Supp. 1555 (D. Kan. 1992). [Return to text]
14. 24 C.F.R. § 103.25. [Return to text]
15. 42 U.S.C. § 3612. [Return to text]
16. Easter Seals Society of New Jersey, Inc. v. Township of North Bergen, 798 F. Supp. 228 (D. N.J. 1992); Stewart B. McKinney Foundation v. Town Plan and Zoning Commission, 790 F. Supp. 1197 (D. Conn. 1992). [Return to text]
17. 42 U.S.C. § 3613. [Return to text]
18. O.R.C. § 4112.05 1. [Return to text]
A publication of the Disability Rights Ohio
Reviewed March 2005