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Discrimination fights in California continue to challenge sober homes

December 15, 2014
by Gary A. Enos, Editor
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When David Sheridan of the Sober Living Network in California looks at how South Florida has become such a hotbed for recovery residence operations good and bad, he is reminded of where California stood 20 years ago, a point at which some unscrupulous individuals there began to tarnish sober living's name. Yet events in recent weeks in Sheridan's home state indicate that legitimate recovery residences still face barriers to living harmoniously in communities.

The Sober Living Network is involved in one of two lawsuits filed last month against the city of Costa Mesa shortly after its adoption of an ordinance regulating the bed capacity and location of sober homes in the city. Local recovery community leaders and members of the City Council clearly have diametrically opposite views of the motivation behind the new law and the effects it would have.

Sheridan, a leading board member with the Sober Living Network, says city leaders are deliberately flouting fair housing law and chose from the start to take their chances in court, even though recovery residence leaders had briefed city officials more than a year ago on the Fair Housing Act and other applicable protections for sober home operators.

“Most of this is driven by neighborhood animus,” says Sheridan, adding that some residents believe that the neighboring community of Newport Beach's longstanding legal battle over sober homes has diverted many would-be operators to Costa Mesa instead.

Jim Righeimer, who was Costa Mesa's mayor when the ordinance was debated and now serves as mayor pro tem, says the city simply is trying to assert some logical control over an overconcentration of unregulated homes. Some city blocks now have as many as four or five of the homes, he says, and many of the residences are significantly overcrowded. A centerpiece of the law is its creation of a 650-foot buffer between homes in the city's “R-1” residential zones.

“We just can't have this concentration,” says Righeimer. “The neighborhoods change dramatically.”

There isn't even common ground over the extent to which Costa Mesa has become an attractive location for recovery homes. Nineteen Costa Mesa homes are part of the Sober Living Network umbrella organization, and Sheridan says that based on the nonprofit group's typical penetration rate in California communities, that probably means there are around 60 sober homes in Costa Mesa. Righeimer says, however, that the city estimates it is home to around 200 sober homes.

Of course, given that recovery residences are protected by law to locate in neighborhoods, there really is no way to calculate a fully accurate number. Sheridan believes the city likely is including in its count many residences where simply a group of unrelated people live together.

Lawsuit plaintiffs

The Sober Living Network has joined member Yellowstone Women's First Step House, which has multiple recovery home locations in Costa Mesa, in filing one of the two lawsuits against the city. Sheridan says the plaintiffs' challenge mainly is based on the Fair Housing Act's protections; he adds that they intend to seek injunctive relief to bar the city from enforcing the ordinance's provisions.

One such provision requires sober residences to complete a registration process with the city, which Righeimer sees as a non-intrusive way to ensure some accountability on operators' part. “We'd like to know for these homes, 'Who's in charge? Who can we contact if there's a problem?'” he says.

Yet recovery community leaders learned in recent weeks that city officials have not yet finalized procedures for the registration process, so little enforcement activity around the new law has taken place thus far.

The other lawsuit was filed by Solid Landings Behavioral Health; Sheridan says that challenge also accuses the city of violating freedom-of-religion protections.

A subplot to the Costa Mesa dispute involves alleged harassing behavior by city officials toward some operators. Local media reports stated that a city code enforcement officer twice made unannounced visits to a Yellowstone home earlier this year, accompanied the second time by police who ended up detaining one resident in handcuffs. Sheridan says officials even rummaged through the trash at the Yellowstone chief executive's personal residence, while Righeimer says city code enforcers have “a completely different interpretation” of the events.

Making accommodation

Righeimer says the city wants to accommodate legitimate operators of recovery homes, saying he has told city residents in public meetings that the homes cannot be barred outright from the community. He says he is personally sensitive to the recovery issue because he has experienced addiction in his family.

But he adds that overcrowded homes where residents are poorly served and then left to their own devices when they don't succeed in these settings endanger neighborhoods. Complaints of alcohol and drug use on the premises have occurred in some neighborhoods, he says. “There's no consumer protection at all,” he says.

Yet Sheridan fears that even if his organization and fellow plaintiffs win the battle, cities such as Costa Mesa ultimately may win the war. In Newport Beach, which has not succeeded in court in upholding its regulatory stance and may eventually be compelled to settle its long dispute, city leaders “have made it known that Newport Beach is not hospitable to people in recovery,” Sheridan says.

Moreover, even when recovery home operators succeed in turning back what they consider onerous regulation, “The cost to defend your rights is just astronomical,” Sheridan says.

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