By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
This is a follow-up to a blog I wrote a few weeks ago, Are Townships, Townhouse Associations, discriminating against the disabled?
According to Attorney John Rule, representing Heart to Heart Care, and Rachel Wentworth, Executive Director of the Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania, both Forks and Palmer Township are in violation of the Fair Housing Act, because their zoning ordinances require “special exceptions” for group homes for the disabled.
For example, in Forks Township, according to the Ordinance, no more than 4 unrelated people may share a dwelling in order to meet the requirements of “family” use, and no more than 7 people to meet the definition of a “Group Home.”
Family. One or more individuals related by blood, marriage or adoption (including persons receiving formal foster care) or up to 4 unrelated individuals who maintain a common household and live within one dwelling unit. A higher number of unrelated persons may be permitted under the Group Home provisions of this Ordinance.
B-16 Group Home.
(a) The purpose of this use is to create a setting, which most nearly approximates traditional familial living arrangements for handicapped, elderly, disabled persons, and others. The intent of this use is to offer persons facing institutionalization an alternative whereby they can be placed in a family setting as nearly normal as possible, and thereby, enter into the mainstream of society. This use is intended to serve the following: persons with mental illness that are not a threat to the physical safety of others, persons with developmental disabilities, victims of domestic abuse; and persons with physical disabilities or disabling illnesses. All group homes shall have the appearance of single-family dwellings or other residential structures. A Group Home shall not include any use that meets the definition of Use E-26 “Treatment Center” in Section 200-28.E. or any use that involves more than 7 residents. See Section 200-79.E.
You can read about Forks Township’s Special Exceptions in this document, see 200-79, and pay particular attention to the section E, Persons with disabilities:
Now, I’m not an attorney. But reading these documents, it seems to me that disabled residents in Chestnut Commons Condominium are legally entitled to accommodation, even under the Township’s own Ordinances. In this case, that accommodation entails the ability to reside with caregivers.
Nevertheless, Forks Township required a hearing on the matter.
That hearing was held on November 14, as reported by The Morning Call. I was absolutely stunned to read the statement from Rachel Wentworth, Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania! (emphasis added in bold.)
Lawyer: Forks has no legal right to deny group home for disabled
By Michelle Merlin, The Morning Call
Two adults with disabilities living in a Forks Township condo have a right to remain in their home without seeking a special exception under the zoning code, an attorney is set to argue Monday night in a case that, he says, has to do with not just zoning rules but federal law.
John Rule says the Fair Housing Act protects organizations such as Heart to Heart Care, which oversees the group home in Chestnut Commons, the condo community on Chestnut Avenue where the two disabled people live with the help of around-the-clock staff.
The Housing Equality Center of Pennsylvania has sent letters to Forks and Palmer officials, warning that denying a group home for people with disabilities could violate the Fair Housing Act.
Rachel Wentworth, the center’s executive director, said there is plenty of case law to back up that position.
It’s not uncommon for municipalities to struggle with fair housing issues, she said. From 2009 to 2011, the center looked at township, borough and city ordinances in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties, finding that about 40 percent of municipalities had Fair Housing Act violations.
Read full article here:
Later that same day, however, the Zoning Board voted on the matter, allowing the disabled residents to remain in their home with their Heart to Heart caregivers. Homeowners of Chestnut Commons Condo Association and attorney Tom Caffrey were unsuccessful in convincing the zoning board that the residents did not meet the definition of “family,” according to township ordinance.
Forks zoners: Group home is a family
By Michelle Merlin, The Morning Call
FORKS TOWNSHIP — The two people with disabilities living in a Forks Township condominium with full-time staff are considered a family under zoning codes, township zoning hearing board members decided.
The Forks Township Zoning Hearing Board voted 2-1 at a hearing about a group home at 21 Chestnut Avenue that the people living in the home constitute a family. The decision about the home in the Chestnut Commons condominium complex came about after township officials told the organization that runs the home, Heart to Heart Care, LLC, to apply for a special exception.
Township officials initially asked the home operators to apply for a special exception . The township’s zoning codes allow group homes for people with disabilities as long as they’re approved by the zoning board and present site plans.
Heart to Heart Care attorney John Rule argued successfully that the home falls under the township’s definition of family. Such a use is allowed without a special exception. He also said a failure to approve the home could lead to a violation of the federal law that protects people with disabilities from housing discrimination.
He also said if the board didn’t consider the two people to fall under the family definition, they should be granted the special exception, and noted the Fair Housing Act requires municipalities to allow reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
“To deny the use would be to present an immediate barrier to these people, being a protected class, and respectfully it would constitute housing discrimination,” he said.
The zoning board’s attorney also noted the reasonable accommodation was allowed under the township’s codes.
Tom Caffrey, an attorney speaking on behalf of the condo association board, argued that the applicant, Heart to Heart Care owner Manuchka DeCamp didn’t offer the township a clear enough picture of family living to meet the family standard. He also said the home didn’t meet special exception parking requirements.
Read full article here:
Although this issue was diverted, it appears that homeowners and condo associations, as well as municipalities, need to review and rethink their CC&Rs and their Ordinances.
After all, why does Forks Township ordinance set an arbitrary limit of 4 unrelated persons residing in the same dwelling? Presumably, it would not violate the Ordinance if a family of 5 or 6 lived in one of the townhouses. Suppose 2 members of that family were disabled, and required nursing care. Would a special exception be required for the family to continue to live in their home?
Something to think about.
I don’t think this is the last time we’ll hear about Fair Housing violations of this nature.