The institutional reform movements of the 1970’s led to a significant downsizing of large facilities housing people with developmental and other disabilities. Advocates began a concerted effort to establish community-based homes, but faced numerous obstacles, most often from local communities which used zoning and building laws as a barrier to allowing development of smaller group homes.
Getting a group home established in the 70’s and early 80’s required persuading a zoning board that the proposed home was not an institution and should be allowed in a single-family area because the group functioned as a family. One of the first in this area was established in Lakewood after a memorable hearing where some neighbors were vocal in their fear that the residents (with developmental disabilities) were likely to molest the neighborhood children. Zoning was finally approved despite these fears.
Another approach was used in Shaker Heights which adopted a group home ordinance after literally years of study and neighborhood meetings. Most cities, however, continued to use zoning restrictions to keep the homes out of single-family neighborhoods.
Two developments changed the picture. In 1985, the US Supreme Court in City of Cleburne v. Cleburne Living Center., Inc. held that there was no rational basis for communities to exclude family-style group homes in residential areas.
Then came the 1988 amendments to the Fair Housing Act (FHA), which extended the protections of the FHA to people with disabilities. More specifically, the FHA prohibited cities from excluding group homes in areas zoned for families. Numerous courts interpreted the FHA in favor of group homes.
These two developments – especially the FHA – totally changed the environment for group homes. Armed with the FHA, the challenge was no longer to persuade a city to accept a group home; the question became why the city should not be following the requirements of the FHA. The cities which refused to recognize the FHA mandates were forced by courts to allow the homes and, very often, to pay the attorney fees for the entity which had mounted the challenge. After a few years, local prosecutors began to advise their clients to allow the homes rather than fight a losing battle.
The climax (for me at least) occurred during a zoning hearing in Strongsville during the fall of 2010. Strongsville was considering an overhaul of their zoning code, including a more updated approach in allowing group homes to be located in residential areas. The hearing room was so crowded that the guards had to direct the overflow of people to a separate area with closed circuit TV. I anticipated the usual testimony about how the group homes would destroy property values, create traffic snarls, etc. Instead, everyone who testified was strongly in favor of adopting the new ordinance and highlighted the values of having people with developmental disabilities living in their neighborhood. It was an unforgettable moment which made the battles of former years worthy of the effort.