Law puts limits on oversight of ‘sober homes’

Residents in Lower Mills and Port Norfolk have in the last year complained and voiced frustrations over potential “sober homes” opening up in their neighborhood. But a state report released this week says there are severe limits to what regulators can do about such housing because federal laws constrain states’ abilities to deal with the issue.

The 16-page report indicates that there is little appetite for regulations, and recommends instead that the Legislature work with state public health officials to provide funds for training sober home managers.

Hilary Jacobs, deputy director of substance abuse services at the state Department of Public Health, said some of the sober homes in the Bay State frequently operate under the radar.

“Most do a good job and exist peacefully,” she said. “But there are those times when that doesn’t happen and we have those egregious operators out there.”

The report was requested by the Legislature as a way of documenting the number of sober homes and the problems created by their operations. Lawmakers were looking to learn if there are standards and requirements necessary to protect sober home residents and also to assess the feasibility of licensing, registering and certifying sober homes or their operators.

In a letter to legislators accompanying the report, DPH Commissioner John Auerbach said his department will work with the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development and the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation to create a working group in response to the report’s findings.

The report’s authors say they had difficulty finding the number of alcohol- or drug-free homes and documenting operational problems. At a minimum, about 300 homes are currently in operation, the report says, calling that number a “fraction” of what actually exist across the Commonwealth.

In 2010, an owner, in talking to the Reporter, guessed that Boston has about 60 sober homes, with Dorchester alone home to about a dozen.

The Bureau of Substance Abuse Services concluded in its report that there is likely “no significant benefit to the residents…through the imposition of mandatory licensure, regulatory, registration or certification requirements. In fact, all relevant standards and protections necessary to protect the residents already exist in housing regulation and in consumer protection laws.”

The report adds that there are “no significant safety concerns in neighborhoods where [sober home] operators are located; in fact, many [sober homes] go unnoticed by neighbors and municipal officials due to their minimal impact on the community.” The bureau was “unable to verify” any significant problems that neighbors expected to arise from the siting of a sober home, including traffic, crime and a negative effect on home values.

Soon after residents of Port Norfolk raised concerns about the operation of a newly-opened sober home in their neighborhood last year, the manager was hit with Medicaid fraud charges by state Attorney General Martha Coakley. Separately, one of the property owners was slapped with allegations of housing discrimination, with a victim claiming she was turned away because she had a public housing voucher.

Recently, merchants and residents in the Lower Mills neighborhood confronted a representative of development team hat intends to open a “sober community” for veterans inside and several Washington Street properties, including the former Molloy Funeral Home. As many as 28 people could be housed on that one block under the preliminary plan outlined to merchants, who have vowed to campaign against the plan, saying it is too dense for one village to absorb.

“There have been real instances where there have been significant incidents,” Jacobs said. “What we think we’re really saying is that while that’s a serious issue that needs to be addressed, by and large the majority of sober home operators are operating within the law and operating peacefully within the community.”

The federal Fair Housing Amendments Act puts in place limitations on regulators aiming to require licensure and regulation of sober homes, the Department of Public Health report says. But sober home providers and residents remain subject to health safety, zoning, land use, and criminal laws, the report adds.

A voluntary training process for sober home staff is recommended, according to the report, along with an incentive for operators to participate that would cost in the range of $242,100 to $257,600 per year, the report estimates.

State Sen. Jack Hart (D-South Boston), whose district includes a number of sober homes, said he disagrees with the report and shares the concerns of neighborhood residents.

“There should be some state or local say as to where these houses can be located and who’s going to regulate them,” he said. Hart, the assistant majority leader in the Senate, said he is in discussions with other senators about offering legislation that would allow the state to regulate the facilities “in some fashion,” adding that “there are many good people who are trying to get sober and these houses perform well in many cases,” but there should be some type of regulations.

The City Council is also looking into the issue, with a hearing scheduled at City Hall on June 6 at 6:30 p.m. Councillors Frank Baker and Tito Jackson called for the hearing. Jackson acknowledged that case law and the courts complicate the issue.

“I think the report looks at that,” he said. “What we are looking at on a local level are things that can make that distinction between the homes that live up to high standards and looking at the clinical outcomes, rather than people who are in this to make a quick buck.”

sober house study.pdf1.29 MB