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Residential Recovery Homes and Their Local Impacts

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at May 5, 2016

On one of the largest drinking holidays in our nation – Cinco de Mayo – I could not pass up writing about the current state of affairs in South Florida relating to the so called “sober home epidemic.”

The Sun-Sentinel wrote an editorial starting with the words “Sober houses have become a plague upon some South Florida cities,” without ever explaining what actual problems exist.

While I find this to be entirely journalistically irresponsible, it simply underscores the “acceptance” our society has that addicts are to be rejected as second-class citizens and “obviously” reprehensible.

Many are aware that Congresswoman Lois Frankel asked representatives from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to come to South Florida this week to see for themselves the “disaster” that has occurred as a result of this “cancer upon our communities.”

I am not really sure what she saw.

Because no one with any “real” knowledge of the problem was invited.

Yes, they have anecdotes.  They have stories about people wandering the streets. They have tales of needles being found on beaches and in parks where kids play.

Welcome to the urban jungle.  Welcome to America in 2016.  Welcome to the largest epidemic in our nation’s history.

But how we are handling it is similar to declaring that we have a problem of homelessness people wandering our streets and sleeping in our parks, but without trying to understand why that is.

Elected officials are trying to address the perceived “effect” but have not spent the time to understand the “cause.”

Not because they are bad people. But because it takes true leadership to be brave enough to look constituents in the eye and ask “who is leading who?”

Granted, there are real-world impacts that a sober home has in a community as a result of being perceived as an undesirable use.

The Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act do not eviscerate the gut reaction to the presence of sober homes that most people seem to have and have had for generations.

But today, even amongst the most enlightened and educated amongst us, we continue to tolerate the stigma as if it is true and self-evident.

On the other hand, the point of the Americans with Disabilities Act was to provide an equal playing field.  When that playing field begins to tip to the point where its impacts are no longer in alignment with its purposes, we need to have a candid and frank discussion to determine where that balance point is.

Homeownership may be one of the highest ideals we aspire to in our nation.

It built our nation’s middle class.

With homeownership comes “stability, increased interest in the promotion of … schools and churches, and ‘recognition of the individual’s responsibility for his share in the safeguarding of the welfare of the community and increased pride in personal achievement which must come from personal participation in projects looking toward community betterment.’” Ewing v. City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, 234 Cal.App.3d 1579 (1991).

A home is often a family’s most significant economic asset and investment. Home marketability and values can depend in part upon the condition of the housing stock, land uses on adjacent property, and proximity to other desirable land uses (e.g., schools, shopping, etc.).

The significant taxes generated by real estate is also a cornerstone of our Florida economy.

While it is unlawful to discriminate against a sober home in a neighborhood, a potential purchaser cannot be forced to buy a property near or next to one. Overcoming this prejudice is mostly a function of educating the public on what a good sober living residence is, and what it is not. Many argue that there are currently no controls in place to determine how to distinguish the good from the bad, and the voluntary certification process offered by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences is not enough.

What they fail to recognize is that there are also no controls in place to determine if any neighbor is a good neighbor or a bad neighbor, so often this argument tends to be prejudice disguised as rational concern.  The reality also is that there is likely to be more drug misuse and other undesirable activities occurring in a typical home in a gated community than in a sober home.

Further, unlike lower-middle-class people who generally cannot otherwise afford a house in higher-end neighborhoods, sober home providers have been able to pierce that invisible ceiling using the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  This socio-economic class warfare harkens back to the days of the “white flight” phenomenon after schools were desegregated in the 1950’s.

Notwithstanding, there is a legitimate question of saturation or over-concentration of sober homes.  However, rather than examining this question with the best interests of the person in recovery in focus (as the law requires), the sentiment by elected officials seems to be, “If we can’t get rid of them, we can at least thin the herd.”

By providing and requiring mandatory separation distances between such homes, as the argument goes, we support the “integration mandate” of the ADA, which encourages the integration of people with disabilities into “normal” society.

But that begs the question – does spreading out recovery residences throughout a city benefit, or hinder, the recovery process?

Does a specific concentration of recovery residences “ change the character of a neighborhood” and transform into a “group home” neighborhood to the detriment of all involved?

Is an arbitrary distance of, let’s say, one block between such homes, something the law allows us to simply all agree upon, or do we need an impartial, third-party to study the issue and present solutions?

That seems to be the single question that everyone is asking, but no one is willing to really look in to.

Because we are scared.

We are scared of the answer.

[On a personal level, I find it interesting that cities will spend tens of thousands of dollars on zoning studies for redevelopment of specific corridors, or on traffic impact studies to determine what to do with certain roadways, but when it comes to the housing question presented by sober living, we are willing to go with existing pre-existing gut notions of “right” and “wrong” to pass laws.  That alone is reason that HUD and DOJ are not likely to give cities the “relief” they are asking for.]

But the answer doesn’t matter anyway.

In order to be effective, we need to have equal partners in the public health system to ensure that such homes deliver what is promised when it comes to the implementation of the behavioral health services to its residents.

But we don’t.

What we do have as partners are the recovery residence and treatment providers themselves.  However, cities must be willing to unclench their fists in order to first shake a hand.

The greater Recovery Community has, time and again, offered itself as a willing partner to find a way to provide the necessary treatment and concurrent housing services to people in recovery within a safe and stable community. They, too, do not want, nor can they afford, to see neighborhoods become destabilized, as such an occurrence equally undermines what they too need in order to help their clients through their personal journey of coming back from the brink of extinction.

But let’s not forget that this is easier said than done.  There is a reason the Civil Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act where each passed, and it was not because local residents were enlightened and progressive enough to see past their own prejudices and eliminate irrational fear to be inclusive. It is because, at our core, we Americans govern ourselves from a base of fear. It is a natural human reaction, meant for self-preservation and protection.

While FDR wrote “the only thing to fear, is fear itself,” he also wrote that “we must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background; we must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”

While one’s home and neighborhood is right to receive the highest protections our nation can afford, each of us must look past the narrowness of our self-interested fear and towards fundamentally changing how we perceive people in recovery so that we may collectively and collaboratively purge the real cancer from our communities.

But the law and public policy will not allow that to begin with the effective internment of people with addictions into ghettos.

And we should not be reactionary to only fix the effect of sober homes, but rather take the time and resources to address the “cause.”

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