Ohio Pastor Chris Avell received an unwelcomed surprise during a church service on New Year’s Eve. In front of his congregation, Bryan Police served the pastor with 18 criminal charges for zoning violations.  

The charges stemmed from Avell’s decision to let homeless individuals seek shelter inside his church, which is next door to the county’s homeless shelter. The shelter can’t help everyone who comes in. Rather than let those unserved individuals live on the streets, Avell let them seek refuge from the cold inside his church. 

But a few months after the church opened its doors to the homeless, city officials gave Avell an ultimatum: evict the homeless or face criminal prosecution. Avell refused to evict the homeless, so Bryan city staff pursued charges against the pastor for violating the city’s zoning laws. 

Avell is part of a long American tradition, extending to the Underground Railroad, of using private property to shelter those in desperate need. But zoning laws in the United States have extinguished the ability to help with anything short of a conventional apartment or home. Small-scale, grassroots, and sometimes admittedly rough accommodations are illegal. Whether it’s an Ohio pastor opening his church to the homeless, a California winery owner allowing an employee to stay on his vineyard to avoid homelessness, or an Akron man who used his property to form an innovative community for the homeless, this is another demonstration of how zoning laws hurt individuals rather than protect them. 

At the Institute for Justice (IJ), we’re fighting these zoning ordinances that hinder individuals who wish to offer their properties to people in their time of need. Helping others is a core human behavior. For centuries, humans have used their land to aid others, whether it be in times of war or just making sure someone has a safe place to sleep at night. We as a society should encourage acts of kindness rather than criminalize it. 

Zoning laws regulate how private property can be used down to the minutest detail. The purpose is to restrict choices—that is why everyone’s living situations fit into just a handful of recognizable categories: single-family, apartment, condo, giant urban homeless shelter. Zoning is anti-innovation. Zoning is anti-spontaneous. Zoning is pro-conformity and pro-economic exclusion. Zoning codes tie the hands of property owners, and contain provisions for swift enforcement, to anyone who deviates from the norms. Because conformity and predictability are zoning’s highest values, officials regularly kick homeless people out of places like churches onto the street, even though it is obvious this is much worse for everyone. 

In Michael Ballard’s case, arbitrary zoning laws allowed Santa Clara County, California to issue Ballard hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines and legal fees because he let a long-time employee of his stay on his 60-acre vineyard. The employee, Marcelino Martinez, and his family of four stayed at the vineyard without issue for three years. Then, in 2017, Santa Clara County officials deemed Martinez’s trailer a violation of county law. The county fined Ballard $250 a day and pushed him to evict the family. Ballard refused but he now faces more than $100,000 in fines and legal fees. 

Meanwhile in Akron, Ohio, city officials forced Sage Lewis to push the homeless he was helping back onto the streets, into the woods, or into shelters all in the name of aesthetics and harmony. Lewis had created a community center on his commercial property in Akron that gave homeless individuals access to tents, food, showers, bathrooms, laundry, clothing, and more. Lewis wanted to help individuals transition from the streets to permanent housing, but Akron city officials tried to close Lewis’ small village because it wasn’t compatible with its surroundings and the city’s zoning code. 

Homelessness is on the rise in America, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Over half a million Americans experienced homelessness in 2022. Worse yet, the rate of unsheltered individuals is also rising, due largely to a “consistent and overwhelming” shortage of shelter beds. 

Creating spaces for some of society’s most vulnerable populations to seek refuge is a time-honored, traditional use of private property. Moreover, communities may need to turn to the generosity of private property owners as the need to house the unsheltered grows. At IJ, we recognize the tradition of individuals using their property to help others and want to make sure that practice is preserved for future generations. 

Tell Us About Your Case 

The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who faced retaliatory code enforcement for public comments they made, were arrested for posting jokes about their local police departments on social media, or had baseless lawsuits filed against them because of their criticisms of government officials. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit https://ij.org/report-abuse/.  

About the Institute for Justice 

The Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty that defends the rights of Americans all over the country, including those who want to provide private solutions to a public problem like homelessness. From suing the FBI, to getting people’s property returned to them, to helping rural Georgians save their land from being taken by a private railroad, IJ aims to protect everyday Americans’ civil liberties free of charge. For more information on the Institute for Justice and its work, visit www.ij.org.