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Recovery residence operators battle dual threat

October 30, 2013
by Alison Knopf, Contributing Writer
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(First of two parts)

Recent events in California and Florida have given strong support to high-quality sober homes. In both states, recovery residences constitute a growing presence, but one that is unregulated on the one hand and prey to discrimination by municipalities on the other.

The lack of regulation has led to unscrupulous practices by shoddy operators who threaten the reputation of all sober homes, which in turn has prompted calls for self-regulation via certification by the field itself. Discrimination has been based on whole-cloth stigmatizing of people in recovery from addiction. The sober home field, represented by National Association of Recovery Residences (NARR) affiliates in both states, is hoping to reach agreements with municipalities to root out the bad actors while keeping the good ones growing.

In California, the recent good news for recovery residence operators came in a court ruling. In Florida, it came in a report from the state’s Department of Children and Families (DCF).


Intent to discriminate

In California, a federal court decision reversed a lower court’s ruling that the city of Newport Beach did not violate the Fair Housing Act (FHA), the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and two state laws by prohibiting group homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. In its Sept. 20 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the district court erred in ruling in favor of Newport Beach because it ignored evidence that the real reason for the city’s group home ordinance was to discriminate against people in recovery from addiction, who by definition are protected as disabled under the ADA and the FHA.

To avoid being accused of illegal discrimination, municipalities frequently try to enact and enforce ordinances that are broadly worded and do not single out people in recovery—although that is their intent. Sober home operators say the ruse is aimed at keeping these homes out of neighborhoods, with local politicians responding to outright stigma in classic NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) scenarios that have played out in city after city, in plain violation of federal laws that for decades have protected people in recovery.

The California ruling sent a strong signal to cities not only in California but around the country, because it raised the likelihood that if they try to engage in a similar tactic, they will lose in court and end up with costly legal fees. Many cities were hoping that the 9th Circuit would uphold the district court and give them the “silver bullet” they wanted to keep enacting and enforcing ordinances limiting sober homes, says Dave Sheridan, a board member with the Santa Monica-based Sober Living Network.

Now facing a similar ordinance in Los Angeles, Sheridan says there is a “confluence of factors” affecting sober homes, poised for legal victories as a result of the Newport Beach decision but also at risk of being undercut by shady practices in a growing but unregulated field.


Scam operators

“For a long time, there’s been a problem with programs identifying themselves as sober homes where they’re anything but,” says Sheridan. In other words, in the worst of these homes people can stay and continue to use drugs as long as they pay rent. And sometimes, the sober homes are only “a way to invest in real estate,” he adds.

The reason that there are poor-quality sober homes is precisely that “scam operators know they enjoy a discrimination protection” if they say they are running sober homes, says Sheridan, who is affiliated with NARR, the national organization spearheading industry-wide standards. “Not many cities really understand this.”

On Oct. 1, the Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health at the Florida DCF issued a report on recovery homes that stops far short of encouraging state regulation, but takes note of the proliferation of unethical practices by some sober home operators. The report noted that there is no way at present to determine the number of sober homes in Florida, even though recent hearings in the state included testimony that these homes are proliferating.

The DCF report cited both the FHA and the ADA, and includes an exhaustive review of sober home statutes and case law in other states. The communities of Port St. Lucie and Delray Beach testified in the recent hearings, citing a lack of state regulation and oversight as responsible for the increase in “unscrupulous landlords” who target residents, charging rent but not offering anything like a sober home.

These operators charge tenants several months’ rent upfront, then evict them and re-rent the rooms, according to Delray Beach testimony. (This was not referring to Caron Treatment Centers’ sober home in Delray Beach; last year, Caron won a court decision on behalf of its sober home there, an operation that the city tried to shut down.)

According to the DCF report, “a common thread running through what was presented was that there were bad actors that needed to be regulated or closed down.” The report proposes voluntary licensure, with fees to be paid to DCF. In addition, the report recommends that substance abuse providers licensed by DCF should not be allowed to refer to sober homes that are not licensed.

“The State of Florida cannot regulate a relationship between individuals who have a common interest in being sober, agree to live together and share rent,” the report stated. “If this is truly the case, people should not be discriminated against for this.”


FARR standards

Meanwhile, the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR) has adopted all 48 of NARR’s standards for recovery residence operation, and added two in order to make the standards pertinent to the Florida market, says John Lehman, a member of the FARR advisory board.