Oxford House:

"Recovering" Alcoholics
Win Disability Angle

August, 1995 -- In City of Edmonds v. Oxford House, a case handled by the ACLU of Washington, the high court ruled that the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) requires "reasonable accommodation" in zoning rules that affect the rights of disabled people to live in communities of their choosing. The ruling supports the rights of disabled persons to live together in single-family zones. As a Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorial put it, the decision "is a triumph for the disabled, a group kept waiting far too long for its fair share of protections."

The Oxford House in Edmonds is a self-sufficient group of eight persons recovering from alcohol and drug abuse. The residents hold jobs, manage the house jointly, and provide mutual support to each other in their recovery. Oxford House is part of a national organization which provides start-up assistance to recovering substance abusers wishing to set up self-sufficient residences of six to ten people.

The ACLU of Washington, through volunteer attorney Robert I. Heller of Riddell Williams Bullitt and Walkinshaw, has represented Oxford House since 1990 when the City of Edmonds sued the Oxford House residents in Edmonds in federal court seeking a declaration that the FHA does not apply to its zoning code. At issue was the City's zoning rule which bars more than five unrelated adults from residing in areas zoned for single families. This rule had put about 97 percent of the single-family housing in Edmonds off-limits to Oxford House.

The FHA was enacted in 1968 to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, or national origin in the sale or rental of housing. It was amended in 1988 to extend coverage to persons with handicaps and to prohibit discrimination based on "familial status." The FHA requires reasonable accommodations in rules, policies, practices, or services, when such accommodations may be necessary to afford handicapped persons equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.

The case will be sent back to the trial court to determine whether the City of Edmonds violated the FHA's prohibitions against discrimination by not providing any reasonable accommodations.