WILMINGTON — In New Hanover County, zoning regulations limit the number of residents in a group home to six. But once again, the organization behind the chain of sober living houses, known as Oxford House, is asking the county to waive zoning restrictions and allow up to eight non-related people to live in a home off Newberry Way, and possibly two children.
The property in question is located at 6601 Newberry Way in the popular residential area of Ogden.
Although the home is still awaiting a hearing with the New Hanover County Board of Adjustment, it appears the applicants are confident their request will be approved since it is listed on the Oxford House International website as one of the Wilmington homes.
Oxford House International has a long and litigious history and essentially claims that zoning regulations do not apply to their organization.
Related: Oxford House requests exemption to zoning ordinance to operate in Kings Grant
According to the organization, the homes are considered single-family in nature and due to the Federal Fair Housing Act, local jurisdictions can’t ‘discriminate against congregate living for the disabled.’
“Oxford Houses are considered single-family residences for purposes of zoning. This has always been true in practice and since March 12, 1989, the effective date of the 1988 Amendments to the Federal Fair Housing Act, it has been a matter of law. Those amendments make it unlawful for any jurisdiction to discriminate against congregate living for the disabled. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are within the scope of the term “disabled”. Therefore, Oxford Houses are not subject to zoning laws regulating the number of unrelated individuals who may live in a single-family dwelling. An Oxford House is not a treatment facility. It is simply an alcohol and drug-free living environment which provides and [sp] opportunity for recovering individuals to live as a family unit focused on the need to change their individual lifestyle to one absolutely free of alcohol and drug use,” according to the group’s N.C. website.
How it works
When reached for comment on the program and the request Regional Outreach Manager John Fox declined.
But according to the group’s application and website, Oxford Houses are not your typical ‘halfway house.’ In fact, they specifically state that they are not halfway houses or treatment centers. In fact, there is no staff, no drug testing, no curfews for residents.
Unlike halfway houses, instead of owning property, all Oxford Houses are rented properties so anyone wishing to start a home must find a willing landlord. In this case, the property in question is owned by Lisa and Gary Hooker, who use a Charlotte residence as their current address.
In this specific request, the applicants are requesting the county allow, ‘… up to eight disabled women be allowed to live at the Oxford House … two of which may have a child.” That means there could be up to 10 people living in one single-family home.
Instead of having staff members to watch the residents, Oxford Houses are self-run.
“Oxford Houses are democratically self-run by the residents who elect officers to serve for terms of six months. In this respect, they are similar to a college fraternity or sorority. However, if a majority of residents believe that any member has relapsed into using alcohol or drugs, that person is immediately expelled. There are no resident counselors in an Oxford House,” according to the group’s website.
One of the main rules to live at an Oxford House is to remain drug and alcohol-free, anyone who relapses can be immediately kicked out of the home.
However, since the homes have no staff and are run by residents, oversight is limited — there are no random drug tests so one would have to, in theory, catch someone in the act of relapsing or have a confession in order to kick someone out of the home.
“Oxford houses are not substance abuse centers or halfway houses. No treatment, counseling, therapy, or any kind of health care is provided. There is no house manager, paid staff, or other types of institutional personnel involved in the supervision or management of the house … There is no required random testing for alcohol or drug use, nor are there any required rules relating to curfews,” according to the request to New Hanover County.
The equivalent of a family?
One of the things Oxford Houses claim is that they are ‘… considered to be the functional equivalent of a family …’
But the 8th Circut Court of Appeals has previously labeled this claim as ‘highly suspect.’
In a 1996 appeal ruling, the court wrote, “Oxford House’s belief that its members must be treated the same as a biological family is highly suspect … Virginia Beach construed the FHA as not prohibiting family-oriented zoning restrictions, so long as the handicapped are treated the same as other unrelated persons.”
This appeal was brought forward by Oxford Houses against the City of University City in Missouri after an Oxford House opened and began moving residents in prior to getting approval from the city.
“Apparently, this is part of a nationwide Oxford House strategy to ignore local laws that treat its residents differently than members of a biological family, and to present local zoning officials with a fait accompli by moving into a residential neighborhood without seeking prior approval,” the 8th Circut Court Judge wrote in the decision.
In fact, instances of this happening in New Hanover County are documented.
“After a citizen complaint in December 2014, county zoning staff was made aware of a nonconforming situation of eight unrelated disabled persons living together in a single-family residence at 110 Landsdowne Road. County law says having more than three unrelated persons living together in a single-family home is illegal so the residence, which is sponsored by the non-profit organization the Oxford House, was given three options by the zoning board. The occupants could either vacate the residence, bring the home into compliance, or petition for an amendment to the zoning ordinance to permit the use,” according to previous Port City Daily reporting.
As of now, there are 13 Oxford Houses located in New Hanover County, two of which have a charter date of March 15, 2018 — nine days before the county’s Zoning Board of Adjustment (ZBA) is scheduled to rule on the request.
The county ZBA is currently scheduled to hear the request on March 24, 2020, although things could change due to Covid-19. In the last several days, a number of official board meetings have been postponed.