Pennsylvania Courts Expand Who May Live in a “Single-Family Dwelling”

June 14, 2021 | By Brooke E. Newborn

For zoning purposes, when we think of the phrase “single-family dwelling”, we generally think of a detached home shared by people related by blood, marriage, adoption, and/or foster care – maybe even a few friends sharing a house as roommates.  Notwithstanding, under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination, Pennsylvania courts have historically allowed groups of people (those not falling within the expected definition of a “family unit”) with “disabilities” to live together in areas zoned for single-family homes, giving people with disabilities an equal opportunity to use and to enjoy housing. 

Since the 1980s, Pennsylvania courts have held that unrelated individuals with mental handicaps who lived together in the same household constituted a single “family,” where they shared housekeeping and cooking responsibilities on the premises.   In the 1990s, this protection was extended to include those living with chronic illness, specifically to include people with AIDS.  In 2009, depression was added to the Fair Housing Act’s protection of persons with disabilities.

Last year, the Commonwealth Court held that cancer patients could be included under the FHA’s protections for persons with disabilities, as well.  Accordingly, the Court held that a non-profit supportive communal residence established for a maximum of seven cancer patients – and a caregiver for each patient, if needed – to live together could be located in an area zoned for single-family dwellings. 

The most recent addition to the groups who may live together as a single-family under the Fair Housing Act occurred in February of this year.  A property owner’s proposed use of its land was for a residence housing eight to ten individuals recovering from addiction, plus a house manager.  The residents would have their own bedrooms, but they would take part in communal activities and share all other living spaces and responsibilities, such as cooking meals in a single kitchen and eating together.  They were expected to live together for a substantial period of time or even permanently.  The fact that the owner charged fees and expenses did not transform the property’s use, because these payments did not indicate a profit motive and were akin to adult family members contributing to a household.

The Commonwealth Court determined that these individuals who were recovering from substance abuse qualified as “disabled” under the Fair Housing Act and emphasized that its finding only applied to recovering addicts, not “current” addicts who were still using drugs and alcohol (as current users are not a part of the protected group under the Fair Housing Act).  The Court accordingly ruled that this type of communal living met the definition of single-family under the Fair Housing Act.

Group homes were established to furnish care under minimally constrictive conditions and to assimilate those with special needs into the community.  These homes, by replicating a family setting, have been found to increase independence and the quality of life of its residents.  The most recent cases from the Commonwealth Court show a pattern of expansion of the definition of “disabled” under the Fair Housing Act, thereby broadening the categories of individuals who can live in group homes in single-family dwelling zones and thus making important strides to secure an equal opportunity for a greater number of people to use and to enjoy housing.   

The information contained in this publication should not be construed as legal advice, is not a substitute for legal counsel, and should not be relied on as such. For legal advice or answers to specific questions, please contact one of our attorneys.

About the Authors

Brooke E. Newborn


Brooke is an attorney in Obermayer’s Business and Finance department. Her practice focuses on real estate transactions, zoning, and land use. Brooke represents private clients, as well as real estate developers and...

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