Residency requirements for public employees is a long-standing concept that has been experiencing a resurgence. In the 1970s, numerous legal challenges were brought against municipalities that required employees to reside in the city or county where they were employed. In 1972, the California Supreme Court found the City of Torrance residency requirement was unconstitutional. In that case, the city ordinance required all employees, including current, to become city residents within six months of the ordinance being enacted. The Supreme Court found the city did not present a compelling government interest that could outweigh the constitutional right to travel beyond the boundaries of the city for residential purposes.
Since the 1970s, public agencies have been honing the craft of writing an enforceable ordinance. In particular, many agencies have focused on public safety. By expanding the residency requirements from within city limits to something distance-based, agencies have created more palatable and reasonable restrictions for police and fire employees. The compelling nature of the need for speedy responses in emergency situations generally has been accepted by the courts.
Some agencies have more strict requirements than others do, and several noteworthy challenges have been in the news. Recently, in Oregon, a police officer is facing possible termination because he lives in another state, which violates the residency requirement ordinance. The police officer and his union argued that the requirement is unconstitutional and not exemplary of the country’s “value of freedom.” The city has not yet made a decision whether to terminate the police officer, but the officer and the union vow legal challenges if he is released based on the residency requirement.
In Iowa, a fire chief recently requested that the city stop forcing firefighters to live within 10 miles of city hall. According to the chief, the restriction is impeding the recruitment of qualified applicants, and he asked that the distance be expanded to 60 miles. The city council noted the purpose of the restriction was to ensure a quick emergency response if needed. The council argued the purpose of the requirement also was to show citizens that critical personnel are part of the community and has not modified the10 mile requirement.
This year, the Arizona legislature presented a bill that would make it unlawful for agencies to enact residency limitations for police and fire personnel, except in cases where the community has less than 5,000 residents. According to the state senator who introduced the bill, firefighters and police in areas such as Sedona and Flagstaff were having difficulty finding affordable housing within the residency restricted areas.
A firefighter in Illinois was terminated from his employment because he did not live within the prescribed boundaries. He rented a house in the city but did not live in it. He argued that the house was his mailing address and that this was sufficient to meet the residency requirements. The board of fire and police commissioners disagreed and upheld the termination. Unsatisfied with that decision, the firefighter sued, and ultimately appealed to the state Court of Appeal. The appellate court said the residency ordinance was not satisfied simply by the firefighter’s renting a house in which the firefighter did not live.
While the need to have readily available emergency personnel may be considered reasonable, enforcing the requirements can be a challenge. Recruitment for many agencies has been an ongoing problem. Rejecting qualified applicants and dismissing employees simply based on the residency requirement may be problematic for agencies that are experiencing recruitment difficulties. Reasonable restrictions, particularly in areas where housing is expensive, may serve agencies better in the long term. If your agency has residency restrictions, it may be a good time to review and evaluate them to ensure they are fair and effective.