Florida, like much of the U.S., is struggling with a mounting opioid epidemic. Governor Rick Scott recently declared the epidemic a public health emergency in Florida. A study by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement/Florida Medical Examiners states that the number of deaths in the state directly caused by opioid use in 2015 numbered 2,538. The same study reported that another 3,896 deaths, while not directly caused by opioid overdose, revealed that opioids were at least present in the deceased person’s body. This is a stark increase in numbers of deaths related to opioid overdose from prior years, which had already been seeing a steady rise in these unfortunate statistics. The largest numbers of deaths are coming out of southeast Florida. This crisis affects not only the individual addicts and their families, but it also affects our communities and residential zoning districts.
Short-term residential treatment facilities and long-term sober group homes which provide housing for individuals in need of addiction treatment are increasingly common. Such living arrangements play an important role in many individuals’ recovery due to the support they provide and integration into the community that they offer. As more treatment facilities and homes seek zoning approvals to open their doors and meet the increasing demand, they may face backlash from nearby neighborhood residents who make irrational claims and arguments against such residential treatment facilities. However, unfounded fears of such residential uses will not be sufficient to justify denying a zoning permit. Recovering former alcohol and substance abusers are regarded as having, physical or mental impairments, which substantially limit one or more of their major life activities. Therefore, such individuals are considered handicapped or disabled under the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 (FHAA) (42 U.S.C. § 3602(h)) and are protected by this law. Even if under a particular zoning code a proposed group home would not meet technical aspects of the regulations, local governments must consider whether the FHAA applies and whether the local government decision makers must make a “reasonable accommodation” for the applicant.
Further, violations of the FHAA may be overt and intentional, but not necessarily. Local governments must also be careful not to interpret zoning regulations in a way that results in significantly more substance abusers in the community from living in the group home setting of their choice compared to non-recovering individuals who want to live in group home settings. Doing so could set the stage for a disparate impact claim under the FHAA. As our communities respond to the growing opioid crisis and assess how best to move forward and help those in need, these fundamental FHAA principles will remain front and center.