WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court made it more difficult yesterday for counties and cities to insulate neighborhoods of single-family homes from becoming sites for group homes, such as those for the disabled or for recovering addicts.
A federal law against discrimination in housing does not allow local governments to exclude group homes by defining "family" so that most group homes would be shut out automatically, the court said in its 6-3 ruling.
The court's decision seems to scuttle zoning ordinances in communities across the nation, including Baltimore and other Maryland communities, that seek to protect single-family communities from groups of residents who are not related to one another.
Directly at issue in the case was an ordinance in Edmonds, Wash., which said that no group of more than five unrelated individuals could live in a house in the part of town set aside for single-family dwellings. A family of unlimited number, however, could occupy a single house there.
Those provisions are almost identical to restrictions in a Baltimore city ordinance, and similar to those in Prince George's County, according to laws in those jurisdictions.
Among other nearby Maryland counties and cities, Baltimore County allows group homes if they obtain an exemption from zoning limits; and Harford County allows any number of related people to live together in one house but restricts group homes to those of no more than eight unrelated people.
Also, Howard County allows group homes for up to eight disabled or elderly persons to live together in any area; Aberdeen allows group homes in any area; and Havre de Grace permits them in two residential zones, but only with special permission, according to local officials.
A state law in Maryland requires cities to treat group homes the same as other single-family homes. But it leaves the definition of the categories to local communities. Thirty-three other states have similar laws that control how group homes may be treated in local laws.
The Supreme Court case arose after executives of Oxford House Inc., a national group that sponsors dwellings for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, leased a house in a single-family neighborhood in Edmonds for such a facility.
The house was to have 10 to 12 residents -- the minimum said to be needed to make it economical. Neighbors complained to zoning officials, who ruled that under local zoning law, the house could be occupied by no more than five unrelated people.
The city went to court to get its powers clarified under federal fair housing laws, in particular a 1988 amendment that extended the federal ban on discrimination to homes occupied by the disabled. Recovering addicts qualify for such protection.
Federal law allows communities to limit how many people may occupy a house; such limits do not amount to discrimination. Edmonds officials argued that their ordinance on group homes set such a ceiling.
The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, said the Edmonds ordinance, with its definition of family, is not a maximum-occupancy law, but one that governs who may live in a single-family neighborhood.
A maximum occupancy law works to limit overcrowding, and thus sets a maximum number of people eligible to occupy a given space -- whether or not they are related, the court said. But, it added, a family definition law does not set a limit on occupancy if it lets any number live together so long as they are related.
Thus, while the Edmonds ordinance would allow no more than five unrelated people to live together in a single home, it would allow families with 10 children, two parents and four grandparents -- and even more, the court noted.
The court did not strike down the Edmonds provisions as a violation of federal housing law. It sent that issue back to lower courts to ponder.
In another action yesterday, the court refused to clarify the right of mentally ill people in state hospitals to refuse -- personally or through a guardian -- mood-altering or anti-psychotic drugs.
The court in the past has declared that prison inmates have some right to refuse anti-psychotic drugs but has never spelled out such a right for other people being held under state supervision.