Oxford House and The Rule of Law


Following national expansion of Oxford House™ in 1989, a number of cases or controversies have arisen as some communities or companies have attempt to treat an Oxford House™ different than an ordinary family would have been treated. Oxford House, Inc. took the lead in defending the right of any Oxford House™ to establish a house in a good neighborhood – particularly in light of the 1988 Amendments to the Federal Fair Housing Act adding “handicapped” as a protected class. A watershed in those efforts was the decision by the United States Supreme Court in May 1995 in the case City of Edmonds, WA v. Oxford House, Inc. et. al. 514 U.S. 725 (1995). In that case, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts were a protected class under the handicapped provisions of the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988.

The late Herb Eastman, Professor at Saint Louis University, published an article in the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal [1995, Vol. 5, No.1] written several months before the Supreme Court decision in the Edmonds Case entitled. War on Drugs or on Drug Users? Drug Treatment and the NIMBY Syndrome. Professor Eastman’s article is a good summary of the state of the law just prior to the Edmonds decision. To compare the adaptation of cities and others to the Fair Housing Act Amendments see an earlier article by John Petrila, J.D., LL.M. from an Issue Brief: Fair Housing Act Amendments [1994] from the University of South Florida.

In 1994, Robert L. Schonfeld, Esq. and Seth P. Stein, Esq. [currently with Moritt Hock Hamroff & Horowitz LLP, Garden City, NY] writing in the Fordham Urban Law Journal, Vol. XXI, set forth one of the best analysis of the 1988 Amendments of the Federal Fair Housing Act  – particularly in how the Amendments extended its protections to the disabled as individuals and how the amendments incorporate reasonable accommodation standards.  While the article was published a few months before the Supreme Court decided City of Edmonds, WA v. Oxford House, Inc., the Court’s decision is consistent with the reasoning and conclusions of Schonfeld and Stein. 

Two legal articles published shortly after the Edmonds Case are [1] The Law and the Land: The Edmonds Case by Matthew J. Cholewa and Dwight H. Merriam, AICP– attorneys with the law firm of Robinson & Cole in Hartford, Connecticut, where they practice land use and real estate law and [2] The Fair Housing Act Amendments Act of 1988 and Group Homes for the Handicapped by John H. Foote and reprinted from the Journal of the Section on Local Government Law of the Virginia State Bar, Vol. III, No, 1, September 1997. Both articles discuss the impact of the Edmonds Case on application of local zoning restrictions on the location of group homes for the handicapped in residential parts of a town or city.

A few days after September 11, 2001 Oxford House officials and their attorneys had to drive to Waterbury, Connecticut for a trial to determine if seven men could continue to live in an Oxford House in West Haven, Connecticut without the instillation of a sprinkler system. The case involved Oxford House, the City of West Haven and the State of Connecticut and the issue was whether or not the particular house had to install a fire safety sprinkler system even though there was no requirement placed on families living in similar houses. Senior Federal Judge Gerard L. Goettel, in his decision, explains in detail the different types of discrimination under the Federal Fair Housing Act and such basic requirements on government and others to make reasonable accommodation. The Tsombanidis Case, 180 F. Supp. 2d 262 (2001) was substantially affirmed by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Tsombanidis Case 2d Cir.

The Fair Housing Act extends protection from discrimination beyond state actors. For example, courts have sustained the position that insurance companies cannot charge landlords more for comprehensive insurance when the landlord is renting property to handicapped individuals. In Wai v. Allstate Insurance Co, 75 F. Supp. 2d 1 (D.D.C. 1999), two landlords who rented their homes to people with disabilities were denied standard landlord insurance and were directed to purchase costlier commercial insurance policies. The Court held that although insurance policies are not explicitly mentioned in the text of the FFHA, denial of homeowners’ insurance on the basis of disability violates §3604(f)(1), which declares it unlawful to “discriminate in the sale, or rental, or otherwise make unavailable or deny, a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of handicap.” The court held that denial of insurance coverage would make a dwelling unavailable to the persons with disability and the insurer had to make a reasonable accommodation. Oxford House was a party to the suit. The Wai Case settled the fact that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are subject to the nondiscrimination provisions of both FFHA and ADA whether such discrimination is from the state or private entities. John Stanton, one of the Washington, DC attorneys handling that case, has written a law review article covering the entire matter of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act, as amended, and the rights of disabled individuals. His Hofstra Law Review Article can be downloaded.

The rights of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts to live in Oxford Houses located in good neighborhoods are well established. A memorandum summarizing cases involving Oxford House precedents under the federal Fair Housing Act entitled Legal Memo Zoning can be downloaded. The HUD Complaint Form for filing a discrimination complaint with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development can be download here.

Oxford House follows a rule of law in making certain that its time-tested system of operation works well. At the same time Oxford House follows laws in the community at large including those that prohibit others from discriminating against the existence of the individual Oxford House.