Zoning and Land Use

According to the Fair Housing Act, a dwelling includes “any building, structure, or portion thereof which is occupied as, or designed or intended for occupancy as, a residence by one or more families, and any vacant land which is offered for sale or lease for the construction or location thereon of any such building, structure, or portion thereof.” Therefore, decisions related to the development or use of such land may not be based upon the race, sex, religion, national origin, color, disability or familial status of the residents or potential residents who may live in the dwelling.

Prohibited activities under the Fair Housing Act:

  • A municipality may not reject a proposed affordable housing development or a group home in response to neighbors’ fears that racial minorities will occupy such housing
  • A municipality may not require neighbor notification or a public hearing only for the development of affordable housing or group homes, but not other types of residential development
  • A municipality may not impose spacing requirements on group homes for persons with disabilities
  • A municipality may not require additional studies or procedural steps or unnecessarily delay decision-making when considering a development that may be occupied by members of the protected classes

In addition to prohibiting discrimination against persons with disabilities, the Fair Housing Act also makes it unlawful to refuse to make “reasonable accommodations” or changes to rules, policies, practices or services, when such accommodations are necessary to allow persons with disabilities an equal opportunity to use or enjoy a dwelling. Unless a municipality can prove that an accommodation request is unreasonable, the municipality must grant the accommodation.

There is an exemption to the Fair Housing Act that applies to zoning and land use. Housing for older persons (80% of the units are occupied by at least one person over the age of 55 or 100% of occupants are age 62 or older) is exempt from the portion of the Fair Housing Act that prohibits discrimination against families with children. According to the Housing for Older Persons Act, a housing facility or community for older persons may include “a municipally zoned area.” Therefore, although a municipality would be prohibited under the Fair Housing Act from making a zoning or land-use decision based on the presence of families with children residing in a dwelling or proposed development, any area zoned specifically for housing for older persons would be exempt from this prohibition.

If you live in Philadelphia, Southeast Pennsylvania or Lehigh Valley and have questions about fair housing and zoning and land use decisions, contact info@equalhousing.org, 866-540-FAIR or complete an online form.


PO BOX 558, Fort Washington, PA 19034
866-540-FAIR | 267-419-8918