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OXFORD HOUSE, INC. v. TOWNSHIP OF CHERRY HILL

September 10, 1992

OXFORD HOUSE, INC., and JOHN DOES ONE through SEVEN (Prospective Residents of 911 South King's Highway), Plaintiffs,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF CHERRY HILL, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN F. GERRY

 GERRY, Chief Judge

 Plaintiffs are a group home for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics and its residents. They seek a preliminary injunction from this court preventing the Township of Cherry Hill from interfering with their rental and occupancy of a house located in a single family residential zone in Cherry Hill. The complaint and an application for a temporary restraining order were filed on March 20, 1992, after the Township refused to issue plaintiffs a Certificate of Occupancy ("C.O.") on the grounds that they failed to meet the definition of a "single family" under the Township's zoning ordinance. Without this C.O., plaintiffs were prohibited under the zoning ordinance from occupying the house. The complaint charges that Cherry Hill's action constitutes discrimination on the basis of handicap in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, 42 U.S.C. § 3601 et seq. On the day the suit was filed, this court issued a temporary restraining order, enjoining the Township from interfering with the immediate occupancy of the house by plaintiffs. A preliminary injunction hearing was subsequently held on May 14, 1992. Based on the following findings of fact and conclusions of law, plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction will be granted.

 FINDINGS OF FACT

 A. The Parties

 1. Plaintiff, Oxford House, Inc., is a Maryland, not-for-profit, tax-exempt corporation which assists in the establishment of housing for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. Oxford House, Inc. serves as the umbrella organization for a national network of approximately 400 individual Oxford Houses, approximately 20 of which are located in New Jersey.

 2. Plaintiffs, John Does One through Seven, are current residents of a newly-established Oxford House located at 911 South Kings Highway in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. They are all recovering alcoholics and substance abusers in need of housing, and they each have completed a rehabilitation program for either alcoholism or drug abuse prior to moving into the house.

 3. Defendant, Township of Cherry Hill, is a municipal corporation located in Camden County, New Jersey, organized under the laws of the State of New Jersey. Cherry Hill exercises zoning authority over the land within its borders.

 4. Oxford Houses are not health care facilities, rehabilitation centers, or supervised halfway houses. They are simply residential dwellings rented by a group of individuals who are recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction. Three basic rules govern the functioning of all Oxford Houses: each house must 1) be democratically self-governed by its residents, 2) be financially self-supporting, and 3) immediately expel any resident who relapses into drug and/or alcohol use. No professional treatment, therapy, or paid staff is provided. Unlike a boarding house, where a proprietor is responsible to run and operate the premises, at Oxford House, the residents are responsible for their own food and care as well as for running the home. Because the house must be self-supporting, each of the residents needs a source of income to pay his or her fair share of the expenses. *fn1"

 6. Although Oxford House, Inc. provides assistance in setting up individual houses and provides technical support initially, once established, an individual Oxford House is no longer subject to direct, ongoing control by Oxford House, Inc. The residents of the house make all of the decisions regarding the management of the house, including decisions concerning new residents. This helps the residents to develop a sense of responsibility and self-esteem, which are important ingredients to a successful recovery.

 7. Oxford House, Inc. attempts to locate houses in clean, drug-free, single family neighborhoods that will provide the occupants a sense of pride and self-worth. Oxford House, Inc. has found that the location of these houses in such neighborhoods plays a crucial role in an individual's recovery by promoting self-esteem, helping to create an incentive not to relapse, and avoiding the temptations that the presence of drug trafficking can create.

 8. There is no limit on the amount of time an individual may reside in an Oxford House; as long as she does not resume the use of drugs or alcohol, meets the requisite financial obligations and does not engage in disruptive behavior, an individual could reside in an Oxford House indefinitely. At one of the original Oxford Houses, a resident stayed for 16 years. Most stay for shorter periods of time, however. In another Oxford House in Cherry Hill, which has been operating for two years, the average length of stay of the current residents has been six months to a year.

 B. The Dispute

 9. Early this year, Oxford House, Inc. made a decision to open up another house in Cherry Hill because the existing houses in Camden County were unable to meet the demand for suitable housing for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers in the area. Accordingly, in February of 1992, pursuant to Oxford House, Inc.'s contractual obligation with the State of New Jersey, it entered into a lease with a property management firm, Realco Management Inc., to rent the premises at 911 South Kings Highway for use as an Oxford House. In connection with this lease, a check in the amount of $ 2,875.00 was drawn from the New Jersey revolving loan fund and paid to Realco on March 5, 1992 to cover the first month's rent and security deposit. Oxford House, Inc. intended to have the house occupied beginning on March 15, 1992.

 11. Subsequent to entering into the lease with Oxford House, Realco applied to the Township for a Certificate of Occupancy pursuant to Township Ordinance 75-11, which requires a landlord to obtain a C.O. prior to any rental, including the rental of a single family home. *fn3" In order for a C.O. to be issued, the proposed use of the property must comply with the Township's zoning ordinance, as well as the Township's property maintenance code.

 12. On March 11, 1992, Bernard Rosen, an inspector from Cherry Hill, inspected the premises pursuant to Realco's C.O. application. At the time of the inspection, he was informed that the prospective tenant was to be Oxford House. Mr. Rosen then informed Realco that he would have to report to the Township that Oxford House was the prospective tenant, and he told Realco that this "was a problem." Rosen subsequently did inform the Township's Director of Community Development, William Ragozine, that the house was to be occupied by Oxford House.

 13. On the same day as Rosen's inspection, Francine Axelrad, attorney for Cherry Hill, wrote to Realco informing them that their application for a C.O. had been denied. *fn4" Her letter stated that the basis for the denial was that "Oxford House does not satisfy the definition of a single family under the Township's Zoning Ordinance." *fn5"

 14. As a result of this letter, Realco Management sought to return the first month's rent and security deposit and sever its relationship with Oxford House. On March 20, 1992, however, this court entered a temporary restraining order, enjoining the Township from interfering with plaintiffs' occupancy of 911 South Kings Highway. Pursuant to that order, the Township reinspected the premises for maintenance code violations and, finding no such violations, issued a C.O. on March 30, 1992.

 15. Since April 1, 1992, 911 South Kings Highway has been occupied by a group of recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. Since that time, there have been no complaints from the neighbors or anyone else concerning the use of the premises.

 16. In addition to 911 South Kings Highway, Oxford House also operates group homes at 141 Pine Valley Road and 108 Hilltop Court in Cherry Hill. The Township has previously filed suit in state court to evict the residents of those two homes because of their failure to meet the definition of family under the zoning ordinance. *fn6" None of the residents of those properties have been charged with any violation of any municipal ordinance in connection with their conduct at the residences, and none of those residents have been arrested for unauthorized use of drugs or alcohol at the premises. William Ragozine, the Director of Community Development for Cherry Hill, testified that neither he nor his department have any information indicating that the presence of these houses has had any adverse impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

 C. The Township's Zoning Ordinance

 17. Under the Cherry Hill Zoning Ordinance, a "family" is defined as:

 a single individual doing his own cooking and living upon the premises as a separate housekeeping unit, or a collective body of persons doing their own cooking and living together upon the premises as a separate housekeeping unit in a domestic relationship based upon birth, marriage or other domestic bond.

 Cherry Hill interprets this ordinance so as to impose more stringent requirements on groups of unrelated individuals seeking to rent a single family home than on groups who are related by blood or marriage. While groups related by blood or marriage who apply for a C.O. are automatically considered to meet the definition of family under the zoning ordinance, a group of unrelated individuals is initially presumed not to constitute a family. In order to obtain a C.O., a group of unrelated individuals must prove that they meet a standard of "permanency and stability." This standard is never imposed on groups related by blood or marriage because they are automatically found to meet the definition of "family" regardless of their particular circumstances. This "permanency and stability" standard is not referred to or defined anywhere in the zoning ordinance, and the Township has no written criteria according to which the standard may be uniformly applied.

 18. When a group of people related by blood or marriage applies for a C.O., assuming that other requirements under the property maintenance code are met, it will be automatically granted on the basis of a simple application form which asks for little more than the proposed tenants' names. When a group of unrelated individuals applies for a C.O., however, it will initially be denied on the ground that they do not meet the definition of a single family. *fn7" The group can then only obtain a C.O. by applying to the Cherry Hill Zoning Board for a variance or an interpretation. The Zoning Board will then hold public hearings, at which the group members must present testimony establishing that they meet the vague standard of "permanency and stability." Until the Zoning Board makes a determination on such an application, the status quo will remain in effect, *fn8" and thus the group will be unable to occupy the premises for which it has signed a lease. *fn9"

 19. To the extent that the Township of Cherry Hill takes the position that Oxford House does not meet the definition of a single family under its zoning ordinance, Oxford House is precluded from obtaining a C.O. for any single family home in any of the five residential zones in the Township. The vast majority of the single family homes in Cherry Hill are located in these five residential zones.

 20. Other than Oxford House, there are no halfway houses, group homes or any other homes in Cherry Hill which provide housing for recovering alcoholics and substance abusers. There is no provision in the ...


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