Haggerty Papers: Exclusionary Zoning and Group Homes

The Dennis Haggerty papers contain documents pertaining to the early struggle to establish group homes.

Residents and localities used zoning ordinances to disenfranchise people with intellectual disabilities  from neighborhoods from the late 1960s to the present.  Zoning is traditionally used in localities for planning.  It typically specified whether an area was residential, commercial, or mixed use and restricts the type or quantity of buildings in the specified areas.  Since the late 1960s, neighborhoods and their residents tried to shield their true discriminatory practices of barring people with intellectual disabilities  from neighborhoods by using zoning as a false creator for their actions.

Court cases, such as Alderman v. Pennhurst case, and publicized investigations initiated deinstitutionalization, and existing institutions, such as Pennhurst, gradually changed their function.  As opposed to lifetime “warehousing” of people with intellectual disabilities, institutions now needed a plan for rehabilitation and normalization.  The steps from institutional living to independent living were a gradual process.  One of the steps in this advancement was the group home or community living center, which were places within communities that a number of intellectually disabled individuals resided with social service support.  In some cases the group home was a supportive service and in other cases it was a transitional service which eventually aided the individual’s transition to independent living.

The group homes, typically located in residential neighborhoods with single-family homes, were usually run by an organization that provided social services to the residents of the home.  The residents received their own bedrooms and the social service workers helped them in the course of their daily living and activities.  Residents at the group homes worked during the day and came home during the evenings much like a standard household.  The difference between the group home and the institution was that at the group home, individuals gained the privacy of living in a home and they gained their dignity as individuals.  Group homes drastically improved the quality of life and increased the skills of individuals formerly living in an institutional setting.

Zoning problems arose when individuals from institutions began their transition to group homes.   Residents and communities attempted to exclude group homes from their areas using zoning as their justification.  Residents and communities fought group homes in court cases and hearings for reasons including potential traffic increases on area roads, lack of parking on the street, or that the group home would decrease property values.   They argued that the neighborhoods were single family residences and that group homes were businesses, boarding homes, or medical facilities deemed only for commercial zones.  They claimed that if the group home could be built, then the same social service organization could build a work shelter on the property or they could turn the group home into an institution.   Overall, the most common argument used to exclude people with intellectual disabilities in zoning cases was the definition of “family.”  Repeatedly, residents argued that single family homes should only house families, commonly defined in ordinances as individuals related by blood, marriage, or adoption.  If unrelated, ordinances established a specified number of individuals in the homes that could not be exceeded.

Their reasoning was always unfounded and not based on any past group home examples.  Attitudes and prejudices of residents and communities incited numerous court battles under the cloak of zoning.  Fear and prejudice made people segregate people with intellectual  disabilities  into institutions and zoning was the another attempt at keeping intellectually disabled out of the community.  Their apprehensions, also as unfounded as their zoning arguments, often included the fear of people with mental illness and fear for their children’s safety, amongst other prejudices.

Attorneys fought for group homes on an individual basis.  This was costly and a timely procedure.  In some cases, group home plans were terminated because of the community’s backlash, as in the case with Delaware County Association for Retarded Children’s (DELARC) plan for a residence in Middletown, Pennsylvania.  The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 purportedly eliminated this housing discrimination, but in 2011 group homes still come under attack by zoning rules and many group homes’ numbers are limited to three people because this allows the home to go around the “family” zoning ordinances in many areas.  This is an ongoing problem and as late as September of 2011, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia submitted its opposition to zoning measures in the City of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, that sought to limit group homes for the disabled and methadone clinics.

Dennis Haggerty collected his own resources for the study of zoning and the law.  Many of Haggerty’s records in the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Advisory Board records document efforts to open group homes and remove individuals from institutions.   These records include minutes, plans, and finances.  DELARC records document DELARC and Elwyn’s efforts to have a group home in Ridley Township, Pennsylvania in 1984.  The records reflect the residents’ fears of the group home and include hearing transcripts, newspaper clippings, correspondence, and meeting minutes.

To learn more, visit the Haggerty Papers at Temple University Libraries’ Urban Archives.


  • Pennhurst State School (Pa.)
  • Deinstitutionalization
  • Haggerty, Dennis
  • Group Homes
  • Community Living Center
  • Archives
  • Discrimination in housing.
  • United States. Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988
  • Disenfranchisement
  • Delaware County Association for Retarded Children (DELARC)
  • Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Advisory Board

Megan Atkinson, Archivist


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