Supreme Court Case – Advanced Housing v. Municipalities
On Tuesday January 15th, 2013, the New American Movement Team traveled to Trenton, NJ to hear the oral arguments of Advanced Housing and Bergen County municipalities deliver their respective arguments for and against supportive housing property tax exemption.
The hearing opened with an examination of the qualities that qualify non-profit housing as exempt from property taxes. According to law, non-profits are exempt from taxes so long as their services “lessen the burden on government.”
In the case of Advanced Housing, a progressive supportive housing and counseling program for individuals with mental illness, the municipalities have called into question the actual burden Advanced Housing relieves of the government.
The plaintiffs (the Bergen County towns) in their attempt to collect property taxes from Advanced Housing constructed a weak argument that drew upon trivial aspects of Advanced Housings supports. The plaintiffs questioned the “essential qualities” of the housing that qualified it as a service to others. To the municipalities, Advanced Housing did not qualify for the tax exemption because their counseling services were “voluntary.”
And this small detail, that services were “voluntary” was the back in which the Bergen County municipalities carried their burden of proof. The municipalities attempted to assert that the presence of the counselor was no more of a service than a “carpet cleaner that is invited into their home regularly and voluntarily.”
For the New American Movement team, the words of the plaintiffs were insulting. To trivialize support counselors and support services merely on the basis on their voluntariness undermines the commitment, skills, and patience necessary to work with individuals with disabilities (developmental, mental, and intellectual)
The defendants, Advanced Housing, conceded to the plaintiffs that counseling services provided by their program is voluntary, however, that that aspect in no way detracted from the quantity, quality, or type of service that residents received. In fact, Advanced Housing promoted that residents of Advanced Housing properties have the right to choose the level of supports they receive. Reinforced by research and asserted by the plaintiff, the ability to choose when, where and how counseling services are delivered has a positive return on the effectiveness of the treatment. The integration between services and housing is what makes Advanced Housing a successful service model.
The defendant on behalf of Advanced Housing assert that Advanced Housing does, in fact, meet the requirements that distinguish it from a subsidized housing program: the services provided by Advanced Housing reduce the burden on government. The Advanced Housing service model provides a new approach to counseling by coupling services and the living program and deinstitutionalizes individuals with mental illness – therefore lessening the burden on government.
The fully integrated program provided by Advanced Housing meets the requirements of the exemption by the three following points: the funding of Advanced Housing is conditional on providing the housing support, there is a critical need for the type of housing provided, and the state is the body determining the types of supports received by individuals. Lastly, community integration – as provided by the homes in the plaintiff’s municipalities – is the most significant part of the treatment.
The essential qualities of Advanced Housing are defined by the housing first model. Meaning, by getting individuals into a home as a primary goal and making treatment secondary to housing, they have found a model of support that is neither coercive nor invasive.
Similarly, under the Olmstead, individuals receiving treatment have the right to live in the community. The plaintiff’s argument against tax exemption undermines the principle of Olmstead in that it removes the individual’s ability to choose how and where they would like to live. If the properties of Advanced Housing were no longer tax exempt, the individuals served by Advanced Housing would not have the option of living in the community.
Advanced Housing is not seeking property tax exemption in hopes of profiting from the housing they provide for the individuals they serve. Rather, the housing provided by Advanced Housing is wholeheartedly lessening the government’s burden by providing in home supports and a modern approach to treatment of mental illness. Not only is Advanced Housing upholding the promise affirmed in the Olmstead decision, but Advanced Housing is providing quality lives to individuals who have mental illness. Taxing an organization that serves both ostracized populations and the community as whole directly contradicts the United States commitment to equality for all, regardless of race, ability or creed.