Friday, October 19, 2018
This week, the Institute for Justice sued on behalf of an Akron, Ohio, nonprofit that has established an encampment for people experiencing homelessness. (See also this New York Times article about the suit.)
The Homeless Charity and Village has been providing shelter for people without anywhere else to go for more than a year. The organization's logic is that, while camping in a tent is not ideal, an encampment is much better/safer than the likely alternatives, which is either dispersed camping or sleeping "rough." The lawsuit contends that denying the nonprofit the right to use its property in this way, under the circumstances of the case, is an irrational restriction on property rights. (Disclosure: I authored and co-signed a letter in support of the nonprofit on behalf of other local nonprofits and faculty over the summer.) The City of Akron, in contrast, argues that a campground is not an appropriate land use under its zoning code.
In an unrelated case, also filed this week, a Cincinnati church is seeking a writ of mandamus to abrogate a injunction that prohibits people from seeking or offering shelter in a tent on public or private land. (Disclosure: I am counsel of record in this case). The injunction was entered in a nuisance lawsuit brought by Hamilton County against the City of Cincinnati at the City's request. The church, which offers its land as a refuge to people experiencing homelessness, argues that the injunction was not properly issued and cannot apply to non-parties who were not part of the underlying case.
Akron and Cincinnati are certainly not the first or only cities to clash with nonprofits over their land use. Many cities use zoning laws to restrict or exclude houses of worship (often triggering RLUIPA), group homes, schools for kids with disabilities, or other service providers. Some cities establish extensive business districts that expressly exclude nonprofit uses, either because they prioritize the value that businesses provide, or are concerned about the lack of revenue that a tax-exempt use would cause to the city. Although there hasn't yet been a lot of study of local control over nonprofit service delivery, that may change as city versus nonprofit disputes spill over into the courts.