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There are 47 group homes in Ward 4.

Cries of protest have issued from Ward 8 recently over a sense that too many group homes have been “dumped” across the river. But residents of Ward 4 have been feeling the same way.

At a forum last night organized by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, Attorney General Peter Nickles and a slate of officials from agencies including DCRA, the Office of Zoning, the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the Department of Disability Services, the Department of Mental Health, and MPD gathered to explain the complex web of rules that governs group homes (politely labeled “community-based residential facilities,” or CBRFs). There are 47 total group homes in Ward 4, and residents lined up to register their concerns about being sandwiched between them, hearing strange yelling at odd hours, having their property devalued, and interacting with surly staff.  

“We aren’t against folks, but how much are we expected to absorb?” asked one woman, who said she was about to have three group homes on her block.

In part because of federal privacy laws, there is no central listing of group homes across the alphabet soup of agencies, and requirements for giving notice of new homes to the surrounding community are hazy. Bowser circulated a memo from the Office of the General Counsel running through legal precedent on attempt to limit the proliferation of group homes. Turns out, this isn’t a new issue: The city council’s attempt to place a city-wide moratorium on group homes was rejected in 2000 for violating the Fair Housing Act as well as the Council’s authority over land use. Soon after, a bill that would have required 60 days notice before any group home license could be granted was withdrawn.

Currently, the closest thing to advance warning an ANC gets is 30 days notice for the District’s “intent to acquire an interest in real property.” Most homes don’t have to get any sort of zoning relief, and homes with fewer than six residents don’t even have to get a certificate of occupancy to open—so they can fly even further under the radar.

That, says ANC 4A Commissioner Dave Wilson, makes for a situation in which group homes—fearing a negative community response—try to avoid advance notice, meaning it comes to neighbors as a shock. “That lack of information creates the problem that they were trying to prevent,” he told the gathered officials.

Attorney General Nickles vowed better communication and management. And, towards the end of the forum, he offered some historical context—solving the problem of warehousing people in large, inhumane institutions by dispersing them in smaller facilities has created another problem.

“Years ago, we took a lot of disabled people, and we put them away. And now, we put them back in the community,” Nickles said. “In some ways, you’ve lost your connection to government. It was very easy, when they were all over at St. Elizabeths, to say, ‘the government will take care of it.’”