Who’s That Moving into My Neighborhood?
You’ve moved into your dream home with lots of space all around. In fact, there’s an empty lot right next door. You like the space that gives you, but, honestly, you’d be happier if someone would buy it and build a home. It would be nice to have another family in the neighborhood. There’s also that empty two-story building a few blocks down the street. Someone told you that it used to be an apartment, but the owner lost it in foreclosure. It would be so nice if someone would rehab it. You hate the thought of empty space when so many people need homes.
So, when you notice sold notices on both properties, you are thrilled. But then your neighbor tells you that they heard from someone that the same person bought both places and are planning a group home for people with mental health issues and low-income housing. Well, that can’t be right. How can they allow “those” kind of people to live in your neighborhood? And the low-income housing will just bring all sorts of families with one parent. There’s got to be a law about these things, right?
Well, good news – you’re right! There is a law governing these type of matters. It’s called the Fair Housing Act. Bad news for you, though – the law isn’t on your side.
The Fair Housing Act (FHA) prohibits discrimination in housing transactions for individuals in what we call protected classes which are race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status or disability. Prohibited practices include denying housing or making housing unavailable for persons in protected classes. This means that not only are developed residences covered, but also vacant land which can be developed into residences.
Violations of the act (discriminatory actions) can be intentional or unintentional. Intentional discrimination is where someone is obviously being treated differently due their protected class. When this happens, the action is called disparate treatment. Unintentional discrimination is where a rule, regulation or law may appear non-discriminatory, but the effects of it result in discrimination against a protected class. When this happens, it is said that a rule, regulation or law disproportionately impacts a protected class.
Any new development or a rehabilitation project has to comply with municipality zoning and other laws. The developer can ask for changes in those laws and/or can challenge a law if they think that it is discriminatory. As a homeowner, you have the right to voice your opinion about any concerns you may have about a new development in your area. For example, you may think that the development will increase traffic or put a strain on valuable resources. The zoning board would hold a public meeting wherein the homeowners could discuss their concerns. The developer is usually present at these meetings to explain how they would address the concerns.
Hopefully, the municipality is well-versed on the FHA. They understand that it violates the FHA to impose restrictions on a development or rehabilitation of a home based on perceived notions of alleged public safety concerns. They know that having a ceiling of four or more unrelated adults could be considered a violation of the FHA and thus, can address questions about the number of unrelated people living in the proposed home. They understand the additional rights afforded to individuals with disabilities under the FHA so they know that they must grant a reasonable accommodation to a zoning or land use ordinance when such is necessary to allow a person full use and enjoyment of their home. In this way, the municipality can facilitate the process surrounding the development or rehabilitation.
It can be scary to welcome someone or something into your neighborhood that is new to you or different from what you have experienced. But, the FHA was enacted for a reason. The idea is to have diverse, culturally-rich communities where everyone is treated equally. This can’t happen if the communities aren’t allowed to exist because of people’s fears or biases. As a homeowner, try to have an open mind when new developments are occurring or an empty building is being rehabbed. Before making rash judgments about any potential problems, get all the facts. We have a lot to learn from people who are different than us. The only way people are “those” people is if we make them so.