From the Forum – Does anyone know much about the legality or permissibility of group homes in residential areas?

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Does anyone know much about the legality or permissibility of group homes in residential areas?

“Concerned resident here. Does anyone know much about the legality or permissibility of group homes in residential areas?

I live on Varnum and we have three, count them, three group homes on our street between 3rd and 4th.

The one that we live next door to is operated by Life Stride. Their residents, or consumers as they call them, are mentally ill or substance-addicted persons. The home allows five consumers at a time and their reasons for admission are one, the other, or both respectively.

A couple of the residents are actually fairly nice and do not cause many problems.

However, we have had issues with a couple. Particularly, one that has both mental health issues as well as substance-addiction issues. He harasses residents, seems very unstable, and is fond of coming out as soon as curfew is over, screaming at the top of his lungs that he has a bomb, that people must die, and that we should call 911.

We have called 911 but they always escort him back to the group home. Even when we called them because he was drinking two pints of vodka, in the open, and yelling at children as they walked to their bus stop. They still escorted him back to the home. When did open containers stop being an offense in DC?

Contacting the group home operator and informing them of these issues has not been fruitful.

Any advice? Recommendations? Personal experiences?”

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31 Comment

  • Here’s the relevant zoning regulation:

    Short answer: While group treatment homes are allowed in R-4 districts (the relevant zoning for the block in question) it appears that the BZA must have passed a few special exemptions to allow the operations of three homes within a single block. I don’t know if you can get those revoked, but it might be worth looking into.

    • The revocation should be because the group home isn’t doing its job (letting someone abuse alcohol), not because there are “too many”… otherwise, they may revoke one of the “good” houses.

      • But that’s precisely what the rule states — that there shouldn’t be more than one group home within certain defined areas, unless the Board approves otherwise.
        335.2 There shall be no other property containing a community-based residential facility for seven (7) or more persons in the same square.
        335.3 There shall be no other property containing a community-based residential facility for seven (7) or more persons within a radius of five hundred feet (500 ft.) from any portion of the subject property.
        [. . .]
        335.6 The facility shall not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood because of traffic, noise, operations, or the number of similar facilities in the area.
        335.7 The Board may approve more than one (1) community-based residential facility in a square or within five hundred feet (500 ft.) only when the Board finds that the cumulative effect of the facilities will not have an adverse impact on the neighborhood because of traffic, noise, or operations.
        335.8 The Board shall not approve more than one (1) youth rehabilitation home, adult rehabilitation home, or substance abusers’ home in a square or within five hundred feet (500 ft.) of each other.

        • the revocation of a license… not the issuing of a license. there is a difference

          • Thank you for that info.

            There have been three group homes on our street for at least 7 years, something that has baffled our neighbors that have been here longer.

            Definitely will look into this info more!

  • So the issue isn’t that you have group homes, it is that one of the group homes is not properly treating its substance abuse residents.

  • “Open container” is not the kind of offense that would wind up in an arrest. The police would issue a citation and, perhaps, escort the person home. Just like you described. Shouting wouldn’t be a crime, either, unless the threats being made were specific or directed at somebody, placing a reasonable person in fear of harm. Even then, police are often limited in what they can do when no action has been taken.

    I understand your discomfort, and I don’t know the laws governing group homes, but I don’t see what else the police could do. We don’t want to criminalize mental illness, and time has shown that criminalizing addiction doesn’t work. Could this man’s case be handled better by his case managers? Probably, from what you describe. DC probably also lacks the resources to do more for him.

    Certainly, don’t stop protecting yourself and your neighbors, follow up with the group home if you can, but just because you have neighbors that don’t act like everybody else doesn’t mean they’re criminals. Your discomfort doesn’t mean they’re breaking the law.

    • We shouldn’t and don’t criminalize mental illness or addiction, but we can should and do criminalize behavior. The resident’s behavior may or may not be criminal, but if it is, mental illness and addiction are not get out of jail free cards.

    • Not to be nitpicky, but possession of an open container of alcohol (aka “POCA”) IS an arrestable offense in DC. You don’t even have to be drinking it. In fact, an unsealed but corked bottle of wine sitting in the back seat of your car (with you in the front seat) is arrestable.

  • I am licensed counselor and have worked with the folks you are describing for years. I know it can be frustrating, but the police really are limited in what they can do. It might be more helpful to try to get into contact with the organization running the house and let them know the problems you are having with the individual, and they should be able the help intervene appropriately treatment-wise, instead of just having the person arrested (which will probably not help). Unfortunately, the reality of the system is that it is overloaded, and sometimes people do not always get the treatment attention they need all the time– people can slip through the cracks.

    Also, if you think the person is experiencing a psychiatric emergency and could be a harm to themselves or others, or is unable to properly care for themselves as a result of a severe illness, you can call CPEP (psychiatric emergency program) at (202) 673-9319 and they may able to send mobile crisis services out to assess the person to determine if hospitalization is necessary to stabilize. Hope this is some help.

    • Thank you for your post and your work!

      • Thanks 🙂 I also used to have a group home next door to me, so I understand it from the professional standpoint, but also as a neighbor. I know that it is more frustrating when you don’t totally know what to do for the person, and don’t fully understand what is happening with the person. Understanding and compassion can go a long way…. and if that doesn’t work, call the professionals 🙂

    • +1 to everything you just said. This is a well-informed, informative, and reasonable comment.

      • Thank you, Nicole!

        It’s incredibly hard work and can definitely take a toll on someone. Thanks for being one of the ones strong enough and caring enough to do it!

  • My old group house in Dupont/U Street was a group house before we moved in. It wasn’t until 2007 that the neighborhood had “come far enough” that the landlord realized he could make more money renting to young people getting their graduate degrees.
    Basically, your best recourse is to convince the owner of the property that they can make more money renting it to a group of individuals or a young family than to the organization running the group facility. Absentee landlords/investors love the “treatment houses” because the government (either DC city or federal) pays them for the rental of the property. That’s a guaranteed revenue stream; the government ain’t late with its bills. In gentrifying areas, the price paid by the government for the use of the house can often exceed the current rental rates for residential purposes. I believe the government would also be on hook for damages too. In other words, a treatment house is an ideal situation for an absentee landlord in an area with depressed prices.

    • Which side of history do you want to be on, integration or segregation? Basically your response is how to shut down group homes. Do you realize how many problems that causes, when people work against group homes that seek to integrate different populations of people rather than isolate them through institutionalization/incarceration? There is a reason why civil rights leaders, especially disability civil rights folks, have been working for decades on this issue. Please grow and learn to live with people who are different than you rather than try to isolate them.

      • Is this an either/or situation, though? What about neighbors who might approve of the concept of community-based services, but are unhappy with group homes that are poorly run?

      • Personally? I think the OP should learn to live with the situation, especially if the houses existed before he/she moved onto the block. The city probably won’t be of any help to the OP, since there’s no where else to put the people living in treatment homes. The city knows this and has maintained these contracts for a long time, so it’s not likely violating the law in any way. It’s also not a perfect system, but it does seem to help.
        My point was that real estate economics tend to drive the location of these treatment homes. The OP will most likely need to wait for property values to rise before the homes will be relocated. Shuffling the poor – same as it ever was….

  • There was a group house in Dupont Circle that was a nuisance, but nothing like this. There were often cars pulling up in the wee hours and honking for residents to come out. The noise and lack of consideration was obnoxious and frustrating, and I was never able to get a resolution on the issue.

  • Moving into a neighborhood is hard work. It is important people take the time to understand the fabric of that neighborhood before getting there and changing systems and supports that existed before you. It is the beauty of living in a city.

    PUBLIC ANNOUNCEMENT: When moving, concern yourself with the neighborhood (group homes filled with drunk college kids or people getting their life back on track, firehouses, bars, etc.) as much as rent, distance to public transportation and the quality of the house.

    OP, were the homes there before you? If not, were you not notified? If you were notified why did you not choose to ask questions then and fight it?

    If the homes were there before you why did you not investigate the neighborhood better?

    • Not the OP, but where exactly do you expect a prospective buyer to find this information? Real estate agents aren’t allowed to talk about neighborhood demographics.

        • It is against the fair housing act an agent to discuss neighborhood demographics like income, race, or religion or to make housing recommendations based on those things.

        • Hell no. It’s a violation of all kinds of fair housing laws.

          • OP: We were not notified.

            And we came to the neighborhood many times at different times of the day to check it out and get to know our neighbors.

            We must have been coming while the group home residents were at treatment.

            Also, there was no way for us to know that the residents scream inside the house at all times of the day (when home), try to violently break out of the home during night time curfew (if the residents hear someone outside during curfew/lock down at night, they slam against the doors to try and break them down and get free), or that they house some severely mentally ill residents.

  • It’s really all up to the organization running the house. They are paid to supervise & rehabilitate their clients. You may have to be firmer with them – call and call and report troubles. If their clients are drinking or otherwise acting out – they are failing in their responsibilities to their clients. Find one or two contacts in the organization and establish a relationship with them.

    I lived in a building for many years with 3 condos belonging to Woodley House – generally well-supervised, but it really did vary.

    • You might also follow up with the District agency that holds the contract with the group home. They are really the ones that can require the operator to change how they provide services to the clientele.

      • Yes I agree. You should contact the organization running the house, and document anything. I had similar problems with another group house in the area. If they are not responsive it can help to “shake the trees” by contacting the District office.

        That does seem like an inordinate number of group homes located in proximity though. It seems to be reasonable to bring that up with the ANC board, or with the DCRA.

  • No idea if or how this actually works, but the AG”s office has a “nuisance abatement unit” to address nuisance properties. Google it for details.

  • This seems like a good place to share this quote from today’s Ta-Nehisi Coates piece at

    “At some point, Americans decided that the best answer to every social ill lay in the power of the criminal-justice system. Vexing social problems—homelessness, drug use, the inability to support one’s children, mental illness—are presently solved by sending in men and women who specialize in inspiring fear and ensuring compliance. Fear and compliance have their place, but it can’t be every place.”

  • OP:

    Hi everyone,

    Thank you for all the info! I appreciate all your input and thoughts and opinions. Additionally, I want to say this:

    As a former social worker, I understand the importance of these group homes. and was happy when my clients were ready to transition to one because they had shown improvement and the capability to reintegrate into society. It was a huge step for them, there was of course recidivism at times, but it was generally a positive thing.

    I’m glad that the residents are getting treatment and have this opportunity, but my main qualm with the home is with the resident I specifically detailed. It is very unsettling to walk outside your home and be afraid to walk across or down the street because a drunk, severely mentally unstable, person is shouting at you and everyone that walks by (including kids), making bomb threats, and threatening to hurt people.

    So, no. This is not about shuffling the poor or shutting down services to people who need them. It’s about ensuring that our neighborhood is safe(r) because between the shootings and robberies, the last thing we need is another reason to not feel safe like this.

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