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Hill v. Community of Damien of Molokai

    Citation. 121 N.M. 353, 1996 NMSC 8, 911 P.2d 861, 1996 N.M.

    Brief Fact Summary. Neighbors brought suit to enjoin further use of residential property as an AIDS Group Home and to enforce a restrictive covenant against the group home.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A group home is used for residential purposes by unrelated persons who can constitute a single family within the meaning of the local zoning definition of family.


    Facts. The Defendant, Community of Damien of Molokai (Defendant), leased the residence located in Albequerque, New Mexico. The group home had four AIDS and other terminally ill patients residing there. The Plaintiffs, Hill and other neighbors (Plaintiffs), live on the same dead end street as group home is located and noticed an increase in traffic going to and from the group home. The restrictive covenant on all the homes in the installment encompassing the group home and the neighbors’ homes said the lots were not to be used for any purpose other than single family residences.

    Issue. Does the restriction to use as a “single family residence” prohibit the establishment of Defendant’s group home?
    Does the covenant exclude the home because of the increased traffic from the group home’s operation?
    Would enforcement of the neighbors definition of the term family (must be related by blood or by law) violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA)?

    Held. The purpose of a group home is to provide residents with a traditional family structure and atmosphere and as matter of law that is a use for residential purposes. In addition, residents of a group home meet the requirement of a “single family” because local ordinances define family to include any group of not more than five unrelated persons.
    The increase in traffic was irrelevant since covenant was in no way directed expressly to relative traffic or on-street parking, whereas it was directed at other specific requirements of appearance and use of the homes.
    Adoption of a definition of the term family as by blood or by law would violate the FHA since the Defendant proved that enforcing the covenant would have the disparate impact of denying housing and group living arrangements to the disabled or handicap. The court balanced this against the neighbors’ interest in avoiding increased traffic and found that the occupancy restriction had a disparate impact.
    The Court did not find evidence of intent based on animus towards residence with AIDS and thus could not support a claim under the FHA for discriminatory enforcement of the covenant.
    Since the covenant has the effect of denying housing access to handicapped residents, neighbors would be required to reasonably accommodate the group home if it would not alter the nature of the restrictions or place burden on the neighbors. A reasonable accommodation under the FHA would include not seeking to enforce the covenant.

    Discussion. The FHA applied because the group home residents were handicapped by definition because of their HIV Positive status. Since the covenant itself failed to define “family,” the local ordinances were used, which included unrelated persons. There are strong policy considerations in favor of group homes.


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