Sober homes face new government scrutiny

State Rep. Bill Hager

For years, the proliferation of sober houses has been a source of frustration for city leaders and neighbors.

Both groups groused about the lack of regulation in place to govern sober houses, which are group homes that shelter people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions.

"It's the wild west," Delray Beach Mayor Gary Glickstein said.

Sober houses dot the landscape in several Broward and Palm Beach county communities, including in Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Deerfield Beach and Pompano Beach.


Photos and review of country star Brad Paisley playing the Cruzan

But now two proposals aim to bring order to what many say is a chaotic situation.

A proposed state law under consideration in the annual Florida legislative session would impose regulations on the facilities.

The measure would require registration with the state, including disclosure of the number of people served at each site, and implement background checks. Operators would have to show proof of fire, safety and health inspections and compliance with local zoning ordinances. And felons convicted of violent crimes wouldn't be allowed as owners and operators.

Sponsored by state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton, and state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, the measure passed one Senate committee and is set for consideration in a House committee on March 19.

Local officials are pressing federal agencies to change their interpretation of laws about people with disabilities and fair housing. If they get what they want, the feds might give cities some leeway to impose some restrictions on homes operating in neighborhoods with single-family houses.

Glickstein said Delray has been working on the issue with U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat who represents many of the affected Broward and Palm Beach county communities. In an email, Frankel said she's working with local and state officials to "find relief that balances the quality of life in our neighborhoods with the ability of folks to beat substance abuse and return to a normal life."

Neighbors seethe over unsupervised residents congregating in and around the homes and city officials complain they're powerless to do anything, even in the face of problems, because people recovering from addictions are protected under federal fair housing and disability laws. Clemens, Glickstein and Hager said government officials don't know who's staffing the homes, what kind of people are residing in them, or even basic numbers about how many exist and how many residents are there.

"Unregulated sober homes are popping up in the middle of neighborhoods and in many cases essentially changing the character of those neighborhoods," Clemens said. Hager said the sober homes "have been plaguing our cities and our residents."

The homes serve a wide range of clientele, from wealthy people who come from other parts of the country for luxury rehab in sunny South Florida to people covered by whatever their insurance will cover to those who are sent to get help by court order.

"Right now there are no regulations whatsoever. They can pop up everywhere in single-family homes," said Pompano Beach Commissioner Charlotte Burrie. "That's actually doing a business in a residential area, which nobody else can do. I couldn't open up a law office in my house."

Glickstein and state Rep. Gwyndolen "Gwyn" Clarke-Reed, D-Deerfield Beach, said the number of sober homes increased during the real estate meltdown, during which foreclosed houses were bought cheaply and turned into sober homes.

"Something definitely has to be done," Clarke-Reed said.

Not so fast, said James Green, a West Palm Beach lawyer who has repeatedly and successfully challenged cities' attempts to restrict sober homes in South Florida. He said people in recovery are a protected class under the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act.

"It's a problem that's motivated by hostile neighbor prejudice against people in recovery," Green said, urging people to substitute blacks or Jews for people in recovery. "If there was neighborhood opposition to people who belong to other protected groups, we'd be saying that they were racist or anti-Semitic."

Efforts to impose restrictions amount to politicians pandering to "the voices of intolerance," he said. "It's more easy to demonize than understand."

He said the model of having people "who are committed to sobriety" living and working together is a successful way to help people stay away from drugs and alcohol.

Burrie and Glickstein said those hooked on alcohol and drugs need assistance to kick their habits. But, Glickstein said, the current system takes advantage of them.

Glickstein said legislation would help them by requiring 48 hours' notice before an eviction or the operator would have to provide 48 hours of temporary shelter elsewhere. He said problems can develop when people are suddenly tossed out of sober homes when the money runs out, and they sometimes commit or become victims of crime, he said. The 48-hour provision would allow time to try to get help from families.

Ray Jones lives on a street of $1 million-plus homes about three minutes from the ocean and Aaron Ansarov in a working-class neighborhood off Linton Boulevard less than a mile east of Interstate 95.

Neither was aware of the prevalence of sober houses in Delray Beach when they bought their houses — and their complaints are nearly identical. Jones said it's damaging all kinds of neighborhoods.

"I love where Iive. I love my house. I enjoy my community," Ansarov said. But, he added via email, after buying a home in a seemingly quiet community of single-family houses, "I never know if the stranger across the street is actually living there or a predator."

aman@tribune.com, 954-356-4550