The Dark Side of Unlicensed Sober Living Homes

A group is forming at a neighbor’s beautifully modern home in Hollywood. I enter cautiously because even though I’ve lived two doors down from this person for the past two years, we’ve never met.

As more neighbors arrive and fill the living room to capacity, it dawns on me: This neighborhood watch meeting is not your normal get together.

You see, a few blocks away an unlicensed sober living facility just opened.

The owner living next to this new facility is here tonight. He’s not the first to talk.

First we listen to a member of our city council explain the housing laws as they stand. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protects a great many from abusive targeting. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) restricts certain disclosures during a home sale to help prevent discrimination. They are both good laws. Each crafted with best intentions.

Unfortunately, some proprietors of unlicensed sober living facilities use those best intentions as a loophole to create unsupervised, self-governed and overfilled halfway homes for a quick profit.

You might imagine the value of that neighbor’s home immediately cratered. And he had just recently put in a pool. Sweat equity, he said.

A Caveat

It should be said: not all sober living homes are bad. Not all engage in objectionable practices. Not every single facility is appalling.

But there are many that fit that bill. And that number is rapidly increasing nationwide.

It should also be said that the portion of our society that struggles with addiction deserves our attention, respect and compassion. These are human beings just like the rest of us and are protected under the same laws as everyone else.

This piece is not meant to vilify those trying to kick the habit. My concern is with unlicensed sober living proprietors abusing legal loopholes to spread substandard living conditions to bucolic neighborhoods across the nation.

It’s an unfortunate roll of the dice that lands one of these businesses next to your home. And there is very little legal recourse to recover from that sudden dip in your home’s value if that facility turns foul.

But, Why In My Back Yard?

Well, these sober homes are popping up everywhere with an increased frequency in recent years. So if you don’t live near one now, it’s becoming increasingly likely that you will soon. “For example,” the AP reports “Prescott, Arizona, a city of 40,000, has 169 homes. That’s one home for every 237 people, with more on the way.”

The most desired location to open a sober living home is usually in a quaint single-family home tucked away from the environment the recovering addict is escaping. So by definition, these facilities appear in quiet residential neighborhoods. Essentially, these are the same areas that most homeowners consider a great place to raise a family.

This has created a decades-long fight between homeowners and their municipalities in the attempt to define operational parameters and create stronger oversight in the manner that these sites are run.

Because currently, laws are getting abused and homeowners are footing the bill.

Laws As They Stand

Currently, there’s no specific laws regulating the location, quality and acceptable staffing consideration at these unlicensed group homes.

A statement released in August of 2006, by the County of Los Angeles’ chief administrative office clearly states “Sober living homes do not require licensing and consequently are unregulated as such.” He adds, “These facilities sometimes come to the attention of code enforcement personnel due to associated code violations relating to unsanitary and substandard housing conditions.”

All in all, the thin blue line won’t intervene until the property falls far enough into disrepair as to be deemed unsanitary and substandard. This would make any neighbor’s skin crawl. Especially those who aren’t too keen on seeing the neighboring property repurposed for this use. Knowing full well that nothing can be done until the property falls into squalid disrepair.

The reason the legal avenues are restricted when combatting the proliferation of these sober living group homes is due to their protection under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) as well as the protection of recovering addicts under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

And since the legal definition of a sober living home excludes any form of medical assistance, the regulations that would normally be associated with recovery homes do not apply here.

”[Sober living homes] are not required (or eligible) to be licensed, and are not subject to Department of Alcohol and Drug Program oversight and regulatory requirements.”The Department of Alcohol and Drug Program’s fact sheet

This shifts regulatory enforcement of these homes to the Department of Social Services, which means evicting one of these businesses falls along similar grounds as ousting your average homeowner.

But since the occupants of sober living homes are legally defined as disabled there are many protections provided to them under the law. And rightfully so. Those with disabilities may not have the means to protect their own rights. But I’ve found that it’s not the afflicted that are truly at fault when sober living group homes veer toward squalid.

It’s the proprietors.

Single-family homes are not meant to house 10-12 unrelated individuals. In many cases I’ve found, all occupants share just one bathroom. Garages are used as additional bedrooms, and bunk beds litter the living rooms, which all make these homes seem like high-priced dorm rooms with grown men packed like sardines. This is a far cry from what is truly needed for recovery: The comforting respite from addiction.

It is true that the improperly run facilities are in the minority, but this is a noisy minority.

In 2007, Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance limiting a sober living facilities to six occupants. The ordinance also forces the operator to apply for a reasonable accommodation permit, regardless of tenant count.

This ordinance went relatively unenforced until late 2012. On the night of November 1st, a sober living group home on El Sereno Avenue in Pasadena erupted in flames killing two men and severely injuring another while also doing $1.35 million in damage, endangering both neighboring residences.

This event once again created the interest to address the concerns and legal recourse for group houses stricken with substandard squalor. But interest alone will not change the federal laws protecting these unlicensed facilities from operating in their current condition.

The FHA states that homeowners cannot disclose the existence of nearby facilities. Soberlivingcertification.com explains that “It would be just as wrong to tell a prospective home buyer that there is a sober living home nearby as it would to say there is a person with AIDS in the neighborhood or an African American family living next door.”

The justification is sound, but it puts the responsibility on the prospective homeowner to do their own exhaustive research when looking to move to a new neighborhood.

What’s really going on

Again, it should be said that not all sober living facilities operate this way. Some homes are a welcome relief from the alleys where these addicts are sure to return if not given a chance to right the wrongs in their life. But this topic has become such a hot button issue due to the cases of things going sour. It is often hard to start an unbiased dialogue about sober living facilities at all.

It may help to explain some legal prescience at the center of what makes these facilities so appetizing for unscrupulous landlords, and by extension a headache for surrounding neighbors. In the 1992 court case Oxford House, Inc. v. Township of Cherry Hill, New Jersey (CIV. No. 92-1150) the plaintiff presents itself as such:

”No professional treatment, therapy, or paid staff is provided. Unlike a boarding house, where a proprietor is responsible to run and operate the premises, at Oxford House, the residents are responsible for their own food and care as well as for running the home.”

And in the event someone relapses into use of drugs or alcohol, the Oxford House claims they are to self-evict.

Wait right there.

A completely self-governed group of recovering individuals is somehow meant to expel those that relapse with zero oversight.

Essentially the nationwide chain of Oxford Houses, which has facilities operating out of 1,607 homes in 45 states, is requesting relapsing drug addicts to use the honor system and just decide to leave if they break their sobriety.

And go where?

Since the occupants are protected under the FHA’s description of the disabled, the Oxford House won its suit against the Township of Cherry Hill in New Jersey and remained open and unregulated across the nation.

This same logic and legal protections are currently used in nearly every state in the nation. No medical assistance, no onsite staff, no government oversight.

Mind you, Paul Molloy, the Oxford House CEO, admits that their success rate is right around 75% (stated about five and a half minutes into this video):

“You can’t take the newly recovering person and put them in the crack neighborhood where they were using crack. You gotta open houses and rent houses in good neighborhoods,” Malloy adds.

I do not mean to suggest that those in need don’t deserve all the help they can get. But any rational person would concede that a sober living home where one in four occupants will relapse should also include some stipulation concerning oversight and accountability.

Because there currently is none.

The systemic abuse of this legal loophole created by a two-decade-old court case remains to this day and continues unabated nationwide.

Blood Boiling Yet?

This contentious subject is sure to elicit emotional support on both sides of the argument. We should all be able to agree that recovering addicts and alcoholics deserve the respect of their fellow citizens. They deserve a place to emerge from the throes of their addiction and return to being functional members of society.

Without safe havens and a place to call home, it would be very easy for most to return to their old destructive habits.

Hopefully, we all would agree that something needs to be done. However, the predominant mindset of “not in my backyard” prevents many from seeing the forest for the trees. And that is understandable. But homelessness is on the rise across the nation. In fact, “Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Oregon and Hawaii have all recently declared emergencies over the rise of homelessness,” reports Reuters.

Where do we go from here?

In the past few years, some cities have started cracking down on these unlicensed sober homes.

Arizona is seeing two to three new unlicensed businesses opening each week. House Bill 2563, introduced last year, would require the state’s estimated 10,000 unlicensed sober living homes to become licensed with the Arizona Division of Behavioral Health Services. This is a smart step towards reform, but detractors argue that many unlicensed homes will easily fly “under the radar.”

In Florida, another hot bed of unlicensed sober homes, two pieces of legislation were introduced to regulate these businesses, one from either side of the aisle. Both pieces of legislation garnered little support and both died in appropriations in 2014.

And after I watched a grown man weep uncontrollably as he described his new neighbors and the loss of his home’s equity, his life’s savings, I must say that I can see just how hard it is to even discuss this topic.

Our society is caught between the need to protect the value and safety of neighboring homeowners while also protecting those recovering and seeking refuge from addiction. There also needs to be an understanding that money can be made on the backs of those looking for a way out, so protection and oversight is a must.

We need to speak up in solidarity and with compassion to craft laws that do not unjustly target those seeking help. Because the longer we sweep this conversation under the rug, the longer these unlicensed facilities can take advantage of legal loopholes and make a quick profit off the backs of the vulnerable.

We must not fear addiction. Or the addicted.

This is a disease that society pushed into the alleyways. It’s time to bring this out into the light so we can work together to solve it.

We must care for our fellow citizens because they need help, and because they are still a part of our community. We all must understand that if those in need don’t have a warm bed and roof overhead, they will fill our alleys and continue to pock the landscape of our beautiful neighborhoods.

Because where else would they go?

Even if we can save only a small percentage of addicts and alcoholics, it’s worth the effort. We need to be giving enough as a community to help pave that path to sobriety and welcome the fallen seeking recovery back to a life of independence.

Top Photo Credit: Unknown