This post represents uncharted waters. I am writing about it because in part I don’t understand the rights involved. I get the basics and that is about it.
What am I talking about? Group houses. Group houses of developmentaly disadvantaged adults and even kids.
These group houses are all over our communities. I have one in my neighborhood, friends have one in their neighborhood in Gladwyne in Lower Merion Township, friends have one in their West Chester neighborhood, and other friends have one in their Rosemont neighborhood in Radnor Township. These homes are in many, many places in Montgomery, Chester, and Delware counties.
These community homes are owned by companies and institutions that specialize in the needs of the special needs, and in other cases the homes are owned by other people who rent to these companies and institutions for profit.
I have no problem having homes like this in our communities. They are allowed by law and these disadvantaged people have a right to as normal a life as possible and a home too.
These homes are allowed in our communities and are protected under Federal laws. I am not a zoning or civil rights lawyer but I imagine along with anti-discrimination laws they cover these homes under things like the Fair Housing Act. I found very helpful information courtesy of the Department of Justice who say (in part):
The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful —
To utilize land use policies or actions that treat groups of persons with disabilities less favorably than groups of non-disabled persons. An example would be an ordinance prohibiting housing for persons with disabilities or a specific type of disability, such as mental illness, from locating in a particular area, while allowing other groups of unrelated individuals to live together in that area.
To take action against, or deny a permit, for a home because of the disability of individuals who live or would live there. An example would be denying a building permit for a home because it was intended to provide housing for persons with mental retardation.
To refuse to make reasonable accommodations in land use and zoning policies and procedures where such accommodations may be necessary to afford persons or groups of persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing.
What constitutes a reasonable accommodation is a case-by-case determination.
Not all requested modifications of rules or policies are reasonable. If a requested modification imposes an undue financial or administrative burden on a local government, or if a modification creates a fundamental alteration in a local government’s land use and zoning scheme, it is not a “reasonable” accommodation.
The disability discrimination provisions of the Fair Housing Act do not extend to persons who claim to be disabled solely on the basis of having been adjudicated a juvenile delinquent, having a criminal record, or being a sex offender. Furthermore, the Fair Housing Act does not protect persons who currently use illegal drugs, persons who have been convicted of the manufacture or sale of illegal drugs, or persons with or without disabilities who present a direct threat to the persons or property of others.
HUD and the Department of Justice encourage parties to group home disputes to explore all reasonable dispute resolution procedures, like mediation, as alternatives to litigation.
They continue and answer some basic questions with regard to fair housing and local zoning:
Q. Does the Fair Housing Act pre-empt local zoning laws?
No. “Pre-emption” is a legal term meaning that one level of government has taken over a field and left no room for government at any other level to pass laws or exercise authority in that area. The Fair Housing Act is not a land use or zoning statute; it does not pre-empt local land use and zoning laws. This is an area where state law typically gives local governments primary power. However, if that power is exercised in a specific instance in a way that is inconsistent with a federal law such as the Fair Housing Act, the federal law will control. Long before the 1988 amendments, the courts had held that the Fair Housing Act prohibited local governments from exercising their land use and zoning powers in a discriminatory way.
Q. What is a group home within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act?
The term “group home” does not have a specific legal meaning. In this statement, the term “group home” refers to housing occupied by groups of unrelated individuals with disabilities.(2) Sometimes, but not always, housing is provided by organizations that also offer various services for individuals with disabilities living in the group homes. Sometimes it is this group home operator, rather than the individuals who live in the home, that interacts with local government in seeking permits and making requests for reasonable accommodations on behalf of those individuals.
The term “group home” is also sometimes applied to any group of unrelated persons who live together in a dwelling — such as a group of students who voluntarily agree to share the rent on a house. The Act does not generally affect the ability of local governments to regulate housing of this kind, as long as they do not discriminate against the residents on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, handicap (disability) or familial status (families with minor children).
Q. What kinds of health and safety regulations can be imposed upon group homes?
The great majority of group homes for persons with disabilities are subject to state regulations intended to protect the health and safety of their residents. The Department of Justice and HUD believe, as do responsible group home operators, that such licensing schemes are necessary and legitimate. Neighbors who have concerns that a particular group home is being operated inappropriately should be able to bring their concerns to the attention of the responsible licensing agency.
I just chose a few things off that page, an excerpt. This web page on the Department of Justice website has a lot of information. If you have a group home in your neighborhood, I suggest you check out this page titled “Group Homes, Local Land Use, and the Fair Housing Act.” I will also note that the evolution of disability rights in the United States is fascinating.
When doing research I also found this publication from the Minnesota State Planning Agency. It’s like a handbook to assimilating these types of homes into their communities. Dry, but interesting. I also found a website called “The Arc” that has a lot of information.
So why am I writing about this delicate topic if I am o.k. with a group home like this being in my neighborhood? Truthfully, I have a couple of concerns about the house in my neighborhood and I wonder what the rights of my neighbors and my familiy’s are and how we can better co-exist.
Our neighborhood group home is owned by a larger company that took over a smaller company. When the smaller company owned the home it was different. It was better maintained, longer term neighbors say.
The company that owns our home states in their literature that they:
support one to five people, depending on need and location. Most homes have 24-hour supervision, and all meet state licensing standards…homes are adapted to the needs of the individuals living there and are maintained with care.
Ok not to be unkind, but there I take issue – with the whole “maintained with care” of it all. Truthfully do they do more than the bare minimum possible to the exterior and the grounds (I have no idea what it is like inside and nor would I have reason to be on the property or in the house)?
For example, they have done very little clean up of any storm debris from February’s ice storm. (And let’s get real everyone has started by now because there is so much to do.)
And around the time of the ice storm and beyond, I had to contact one of the local offices of this company to let them know they had fir trees and such leaning on electrical wires. Very pleasant people to deal with. The 24 hour staff had never to my knowledge notified them so they could tell PECO. We had already gone a week without power, and I thought if I did not like it very much, how hard would more of that be for developmentally challenged adults?
Group homes in the broad aspect are like rental homes, right? Some rental houses have landlords who are more house proud than others. I don’t expect full flowering gardens, but it would be nice if they cleaned up more. I would think it would be nicer for the residents too.
These houses have periods where they have a lot of cars in and out. Our neighborhood group house has one on one proportion of care staff to each resident. We are not sure how many people actually live in the house and how do they do a resident count as far as our municipality as it seems that part of it defers to local zoning? Is it a head count of residents alone or is it a combined head count of residents and staff as a total head count if this is a home with 24 hour a day 7 days a week care?
The number of people is not only important from the view of what is it our local zoning actually allows (which is like a great mystery of life), but when considering things like septic systems.
We don’t have access to public sewer and we are all on septic. And you can see multiple sand mounds on this property from public rights of way and neighbors’ side yards, and well those have to do with septic systems and how many of those can you dig on a property probably around an acre in size?
In the warmer weather you occasionally get septic smells from this group home. We all do our best to treat our septic systems with respect and we know we have to limit massive amounts of water usage so as not to harm our systems.
We also pay attention and try to use more environmentally friendly cleaning products and clothes detergents. We as more permanent residents know we have to do these thing but do the staff of this group home know or care about such things? Septic systems contain human waste. Waste like that if it escapes septic tanks, fingers, and so on can spread disease. What happens if the septic goes completely? How many of those mound things can you dig? How does that affect not only our quality of life as neighbors but the lives of the group home residents as well?
And to all of the things that go into “curb appeal” I would add good septic along with a tidied up property, wouldn’t you? Because face it, the curb appeal of others’ affects your property values too, right? Our homes are our castles, so you can’t blame people for having occasional concerns. It is just trying to be a good neighbor and our neighborhood is pretty tight in that regard which I really like.
We see staff coming and going, but rarely see residents. Well we see one. This resident sneaks out unsupervised and occasionally has issues. The company that owns the group home in our neighborhood says their residents are not supposed to be unsupervised, that is why they have one on one care.
But the resident who wanders has done things like peep in people’s windows, including mine (which did scare the crap out of me early one morning). That of course is not so much fun and well there are laws about what amounts to trespassing and being a peeping Tom. But we haven’t as of yet called the local police about that, we just tell the company when he is out because he is developmentally disadvantaged. We figure this resident probably misses having an actual family, only he’s not ours to care for. This poor person also occasionally has anger issues. That also isn’t ideal because we have kids and we worry about the acting out occurring when the kids are out playing because they are children and not equipped to handle things like that. And again, this person is not our responsibility.
My friends who have these group homes from similar companies experience varying degrees of issues from these homes as well. Some have even told me of their concerns. Some have had houses where the police have been called a great deal at different times or problems with an overabundance of people parking on lawns like it is a mall parking lot. I have never seen the local police at our neighborhood group home, although once a few months ago I did see a county sheriff car stop by.
We are very lucky all things considered in our neighborhood. I have seen homes like this end up on the news either because of living conditions or missing residents. But still we wonder what our rights are? Do we have the right to ask how many people live there and how many people by code are allowed to live in any kind of a group home? Should we be calling the police when residents wander alone nstead of the company’s local office? And do we have the right to be concerned about upkeep of the property and worry when their septic smells?
I just don’t know, so I am putting it out there to all of you. Especially if you have such homes where you live. These residents of these group homes deserve to have a normal a life as possible, but they are sort of among the voiceless in our society so what do we or should we do if we think one of these houses has a problem? Additionally, what are our rights as property owners and residents and what do local municipalities do to ensure these group houses blend successfully into our communities and ensure that the actual residents are always safe?
I will throw something out there. Everyone knows I am not a huge fan of followers of Rudolf Steiner and Anthroposophy. However that being said, it seems that The Camphill Movement in Chester County does some pretty awesome things for developmentally disadvantaged children and adults.
In closing I will add I have been torn about this for a long time. These homes are for a lot of us a relatively new phenomenon in our neighborhoods and communities. And there are no guides or rule books for co-exisiting. We have ideas of the rights of the residents thanks to disability and housing rights laws, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything that lays out the rights of the people who live around them. So maybe it would be nice if some group in Pennsylvania or local municipalities could give us an outline.
Thanks for stopping by.