Some Cities Keep Tabs On Sober Homes

Dated: May 6 2016

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West Palm Beach – May 3, 2016 – When a sober home operator proposed packing 12 people into a three-bedroom West Palm Beach home, the city cried foul.

The operator said the home had six bedrooms but one was actually a utility closet and two others were constructed illegally, city zoning chief Angella Jones-Vann said. She limited the home to six residents in three bedrooms.

Jones-Vann took advantage of a little-known power cities have over sober home operators: a federally required review to "reasonably accommodate" recovering addicts who want to live together in numbers beyond what zoning codes allow.

Sober-home invasion – Neighbors: We're under siege

Most cities in Palm Beach County fail to use reasonable accommodations, which sober homes must apply for, to exert control over the number of unrelated individuals living together. While the power is not absolute, it is a tool – perhaps the only tool – for local governments to have a say over what happens within a sober home.

West Palm Beach and Delray Beach closely track operators. Code inspectors, police and firefighters identify sober homes and insist they fill out an application for the accommodations.

Other cities, such as Lake Worth, Boynton Beach and Wellington, do little to persuade sober homes to sign up. For instance, Lake Worth, a city teeming with sober homes, has processed just one reasonable accommodation request.

Two cities, Lake Park and Boca Raton, hold a public hearing before approving an application, a requirement that tends to discourage applicants. Boca Raton has received five requests but none for sober homes.

Greenacres has no mechanism at all. Even though federal law requires cities to make the applications available, the city hasn't gotten any requests and doesn't have procedures to handle them because there hasn't been a need, planning director Tom Lanahan said. If a formal request is made, he said, the city will follow federal law.

Operators say they welcome the scrutiny, describing the forms as a legitimate way to weed out bad sober home operators.

"A lot is there that cities can do, and should do, but aren't doing because they are not educated," said Delray Beach attorney Jeffrey Lynne, who often represents operators.

Limits for unrelated people

Sober homes, also called halfway houses, provide a family-like setting to support people in recovery. "People get into drugs and alcoholism because they feel alone," said Lynne, a former city attorney. "You can't isolate them."

That philosophy clashes with local zoning codes. For most cities, a single-family home cannot be occupied by more than three unrelated people.

But recovering addicts are considered disabled under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. And, under federal housing laws, cities can't discriminate against them.

Federal law says cities must give disabled people an opportunity to be accommodated through a formal written request. So, a sober home operator must show that changing the cap on the number of unrelated people is crucial for recovery.

For this reason, Delray Beach permitted New Hope Treatment Center to operate a sober home with eight residents in four bedrooms spread across two structures next to several million-dollar homes on the Intracoastal Waterway. That meant lifting the cap per structure to four, from three.

These laws leave cities little leeway. One exception, experts say, is when the activities of the addicts are harmful to themselves, such as when those in recovery use illicit drugs.

Jones-Vann rejected one request after police told her there had been two drug overdoses over five months at the home. By tracking overdoses, the city hopes to make a case to force problem homes to close.

"They are not protected by the ADA if they are still using," Jones-Vann said.

Hard to prove

In Haverhill, officials long have battled a group home in a residential area, which violates zoning standards. The owners wouldn't give town officials any information. Town officials said they had no legal right to enter the home so they could not prove that more than three unrelated people lived within.

But that proof could have been uncovered a year ago, when two people died of heroin overdoses within six hours in the home. Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies identified six residents in the main house. Several said they didn't know the people who died down the hallway from their rooms, a clear indicator that the residents were not related.

When presented with the police reports by The Palm Beach Post, Town Administrator Janice Rutan turned them over to the town attorney to see if they could be used to force the home's owner to follow town codes – or be shut down.

Communication with other agencies and within cities is critical to monitoring sober homes.

Typically, code enforcement inspectors learn of sober homes through neighbor complaints. Police and firefighters also are in position to alert zoning officials.

In West Palm Beach and Delray Beach, when zoning officials are notified, they send sober home operators a notice forcing them to seek reasonable accommodation. West Palm has received close to 90 applications since 2014. Delray has received hundreds since 2010.

Most cities, however, don't insist that departments collaborate with one another so the homes avoid detection.

Wellington, Pahokee and Jupiter have not received any requests from sober homes for reasonable accommodations. However, the Florida Association of Recovery Residents, which produces guidelines for sober homes, has registered four homes in those cities.

Boynton Beach limits single-family homes to not more than five unrelated people, which is higher than most cities. The city, which has dozens of sober homes, has received just three reasonable accommodation requests.

In West Palm Beach, every request goes through a planning official who ensures that the floor plan meets the needs of the residents. That's how Jones-Vann found the three unsanctioned bedrooms in a home on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard.

She also makes sure there's at least one bathroom for every four residents.

Room size matters as well. "You put two grown men in an 8x8 room and they are just going to fight," said Marc Woods, a Delray Beach code enforcement officer.

After requests are reviewed and modified, compliance is never certain. Despite allowing just six people in the home on Palm Beach Lakes, the city is unlikely to check back any more often than once a year.

Fear of restrictions

What all the different players have in common is fear.

Neighbors fear sober homes and complain to city officials. City officials fear lawsuits, especially if they act too strongly. Sober home operators fear restrictions and red tape.

"The cities are overwhelmed and afraid of getting sued," Lynne said.

In 2003, Boca Raton tried to prohibit a sober house from operating in a single-family neighborhood. The city went to court and lost, paying close to $1 million in attorney fees.

When cities start regulating sober homes, operators fear declaring their existence "because they are afraid that cities will do everything in their power to restrict them or make life difficult for them," Lynne said.

That fear might be justified.

In Lake Park, Randi Aberns' Women of Dignity was forced to reduce the number of disabled people on the property from five to four. In city records, Aberns said the loss of revenue forced her to shut down.

But the pressure on cities from residents doesn't stop.

"Many of the individuals who use these facilities are troubled and have histories of criminal behavior and violence," a Lake Park resident wrote in response to a request for reasonable accommodation in 2010. "When these individuals move into Lake Park, their problems become Lake Park's problems."

In Boca Raton and Lake Park, which require public hearings, these angry voices are amplified.

"I am an 88-year-old widow. I do not feel safe and secure knowing that recovering narcotics and alcoholics will be circulating through the house next door on an ongoing basis," wrote another Lake Park resident.

The hearings stigmatize recovering addicts even more. A yellow board is posted outside the home before the hearing, something Lynne refers to as a "scarlet letter."

"It is like standing there and having tomatoes thrown at you because you live in a recovery residence," he said.

Copyright © 2016 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.), Gurman Bhatia. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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Angelo F. Terrizzi Jr.

I am a New England native, born and raised in the Boston area. Growing up, I was always involved with extra-curricular activities through school and church. I spent 30+ years in Business and later in ....

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