Defiant sober home operator plans to proceed on Percival Street

Joseph Pizziferri III, center, addresses résidents and public officials on their proposed sober home expansion. His father, Joseph Pizziferri Jr., stands by the back door.

Update March 28, 12:30 p.m. -- Owner Joseph Pizziferri Jr. says he has told neighbors that plans to make 29 Percival St. a sober home are paused for now. "Everything is on hold right now, until we can work with the neighbors to find a happy medium," he told the Reporter Thursday afternoon, adding that he is reaching out to neighbors and the city on next steps.

The Reporter's original story is below:

Residents and local officials excoriated the owner of several “sober” group homes during an emotional meeting at the Mather School on Tuesday night in which the property owners— Joseph Pizziferri Jr. and his son, Joseph Pizziferri III— pledged to move forward with their controversial plans to operate a group home at 29 Percival St.

Neighbors along Potosi and Percival streets and Mount Ida Road have been on edge since last year, when 29 Percival sold and then quickly traded hands to the Pizziferris, who operate seven sober homes in the Dorchester and Roxbury area, including 16 Potosi St., just two houses over. They also own the houses at 26 and 28 Percival St.

In the midst of an opioid epidemic, residents told the Pizziferris that they they fully understood the need for such houses and praised the overall mission of sober homes. But the idea of two out of the tight-knit street's 11 homes becoming 15-person-plus sober homes without the owner reaching out to any neighbors to inform them felt unsettling.

“We all occupy our homes. We are all in all in the neighborhood,” said Lisa Villaroel. “When you made 16 a sober home, nobody knew. We accepted it because that was it, that was a sober home, we accepted it and we are for the sober homes. We are not against it, but what we are not for is when you are not transparent and you do that things that you have done… you have not been transparent to the community. We are just not happy with how you have actually gone about what you’re doing.”

Their initial outcry upon seeing 30 mattresses carted into the big Victorian house on Percival Street brought Inspectional Services into the mix to investigate any potential zoning violations. Two of the top officials in the city of Boston have been engaged in hands-on talks with neighbors and the Pizzeferis to resolve the dispute.

One of those officials— Inspectional Services Department Commissioner William Christopher — was on hand at Tuesday’s meeting and at first spoke kindly of the Pizziferris. They came into his office willingly and made changes to the house so that it better reflected the single-family zoning for which it was intended, Christopher said. They assured Christopher they would not be moving forward with plans to make it a sober home.

That congeniality took a sharp turn when the elder Pizziferri revealed during the meeting that he did in fact intend to convert 29 Percival into a sober home for 15 women. It has already been certified under the Faith House group that the Pizziferris manage, though it has not yet opened.

“I really feel betrayed,” Christopher said as outrage bubbled in the room. “Joe, you told me at the onset of things, then I came to this community and very proudly represented you and your family that you were going to do the right thing. I am pretty upset at the dealings that you’re going to have with the city, because your word no longer means anything to me.”

Multiple residents said that Pizziferri lied to them on first meeting them, claiming that he and his family would be moving into 16 Potosi St. Neither he nor his son contradicted those claims during the meeting. The son declined to comment afterward.

Rochelle Nwosu, a former principal at the Mather School who lives between 16 Potosi and 29 Percival, said “I want to cry. That’s how strongly I feel about this situation.”

With her young child at her knees and her hand on her pregnant midriff, Nwosu told Pizziferri, “I had faith in you, thought you were going to say, ‘You know what? I’ve tapped out on Potosi, let me just sell Percival’ and make money on it, do whatever you need to do, fix it up, make it fancy, do whatever’s happening all over Dorchester, but I honestly did not expect to come here tonight to hear you say that you were going to move forward with that. I am heartbroken.”

Representatives from the Massachusetts Alliance of Sober Housing (MASH) and the Recovery Homes Collaborative explained that the sober homes are a protected category in part because of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“You can’t subject a sober home to a different standard than you would anybody else in your neighborhood,” said Larissa Matzek of MASH. City Councillor Frank Baker acknowledged that the voluntary sober home certification system has done a lot of good in bringing sober homes into the light. But, Baker added, the way these homes were purchased and transformed “looks shady.”

Denise Williams presently lives at 16 Potosi St. and said the sober house “saved my life.” If she had stayed at her mother’s house, she said, “I would have continued to use.” She defended other residents of the house and emphasized that they all have to stay clean while living there.

Sheila Dillon, housing chief for the city of Boston, was among those visibly frustrated by the meeting’s turn. At one point, Dillon pointedly asked that the owners “do the right thing” and sell the house. In a strong real estate market, Dillon said, “you don’t have to convert the house. It’s easy, just say you’re not gonna do it.”

The state has standards for how densely rooming houses can be sited, she pointed out, so the state could in theory make density a condition of its voluntary certification process for sober homes.

Pizziferri III said the density is intentional, “so there is that community, so there is that camaraderie.” He called it “intimidating” to go door-to-door to introduce himself. “As far as community involvement, we’ve been in this community six years and no one’s ever called my phone to say ‘Hello,’” he said.

Villaroel pointed out that they had to go digging through records to even find out who owned the houses and others said they had never seen the younger Pizziferri in the neighborhood.

Christopher asked that the Pizziferris put off converting the house for a month until the next meeting, but Pizziferri Jr. said it would be a financial burden, sarcastically suggesting “If everyone wants to pass the hat and make a donation,” to cover his mortgage.

Christopher, Dillon, Baker, and State Rep. Liz Miranda huddled outside the room briefly to discuss next steps.

“The issue of sober homes has to be addressed at the state level,” Miranda said on her return, adding that she will look at what the legislative options are. The burden on Roxbury and Dorchester in this area is immense, Miranda said, ticking off streets where multiple houses flipped to sober homes often without telling neighbors.

“This community has so many different other concerns, that it’s constantly like we’re dealing with immigration, crime, we’re dealing with not affordable housing, sober homes. It’s constant. It’s so constant I actually feel ill most of the time not knowing what to do,” Miranda said. “But I will say that having been born and raised in this community, that the thing that I have felt hardest as a resident as well as an elected is the manner in which people come into our community and insult our intelligence.”