A federal judge recently held that the city of Baton Rouge officials discriminated against recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, by attempting to prevent them from living in group homes leased in single-family neighborhoods. The judge concluded that Baton Rouge violated the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by refusing to grant Oxford House (a group home) a reasonable accommodation to its Unified Development Code (UDC). The court also found that the City violated the Act by engaging in intentional discrimination against Oxford House because of their association with disabled persons; enforcing a facially discriminatory zoning provision in the form of its “Special Homes” ordinance and retaliating against the plaintiffs after they filed a fair housing complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and a fair housing lawsuit in federal court.
Oxford House, Inc., is a nation-wide network of group homes for persons recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. All Oxford Houses adhere to three major concepts: they are financially self-supporting, democratically run, and evict any resident that returns to active substance use. Each resident is required to obtain employment and to contribute $400 per month toward the household lease and other expenses. Any resident caught using drugs or alcohol would be expelled by the other members of the house, and anyone found not to have reported another person’s use of drugs or alcohol would also be expelled. Individual Oxford Houses create a family atmosphere to allow residents to benefit from the therapeutic support of their peers in helping them stay clean and sober and recover from their addictions.
However, in 2011, the City of Baton Rouge filed suit in state court against the owners of two Oxford Houses claiming that the houses were in violation of the UDC because more than two unrelated persons were living in a single-family home zoned as A-1. An A-1 zoning is for single-family residences and it defines a single family as an individual or two or more persons not related by blood. Oxford House filed a fair housing complaint and lawsuit against the City, after the City denied multiple reasonable accommodation requests from Oxford House in relation to the two properties. Under the Act, residents of Oxford Houses are considered to be people with disabilities. Thus, a failure to provide reasonable accommodation to the UDC was a violation of the Act.
This case is a good example of the difficulties that people with disabilities face in the housing sector. Many are turned away from housing because of their disabilities and they resort to sleeping in the streets. The same attitude applies to assisted living, nursing and mental institutions. Many cities and municipalities attempt to prevent the building of such facilities, by enacting zoning ordinances. By doing so, they discriminate against one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. This attitude is mainly based on the misconception that such facilities lower the value of homes and lead to an increase in crimes in the areas where they are situated. As James Perry, the Executive Director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) noted, “People recovering from addiction need a stable, supportive environment in order to be successful…” The federal court’s decision, upholds the civil and housing rights of people with disabilities, and it is hoped that the City of Baton Rouge will affirmatively strive to do the same.