A new approach to regulating ‘sober homes’ is now in effect

As our communities face a dramatic uptick in opiate-related deaths and overdoses, state and city policymakers are working together to find ways to increase the quality and availability of treatment facilities for those in need, as well as address regular neighborhood concerns surrounding “sober living” environments in communities across the Commonwealth.

We write today to address one particularly thorny element of the treatment system – “sober homes” – and to highlight new opportunities for community groups to become informed and engaged in productive change.

Sober homes, alternatively known as Alcohol and Drug Free Housing (ADF housing), are private entities, incorporated as either for-profit or non-profit organizations that provide housing for individuals in recovery. At their very best, these programs fill a central need for individuals in recovery, creating a positive and supportive environment for clients and actively working to be good neighbors in their respective communities.

At their very worst, program operators prey on their clients and turn a blind eye to substance use and abuse among the tenants they serve, often wreaking havoc on a neighborhood with constant calls being made to police, fire, EMS, and Inspectional Services departments.

Unlike almost all other types of substance abuse treatment services, sober homes are largely exempt from city and state regulation, as they do not provide treatment; they only provide a “sober” living environment. Regulations of treatment programs often require a public notification process prior to the opening of a program, giving neighbors an opportunity to weigh in with their concerns and voice their expectations for the neighborhood to the program operator.

As elected representatives of neighborhoods within Boston, we support and expect a community engagement process for all major changes in a neighborhood regarding group living, including the operation and opening of any sober home. With that said, we have actively worked to educate ourselves on the differences between treatment programs and sober homes and advocate for our communities after many problem sober homes started popping up in our neighborhoods with little or no notice to abutting residents. In this advocacy we are not alone; we have worked with colleagues across city and state government on these and related issues.

So why hasn’t government stepped in to weed out the bad-actors? In that pursuit, cities and towns across the country have implemented ordinances to regulate ADF housing. And across the country, courts have overturned those ordinances as having a “discriminatory intent or effect” on individuals in recovery.

Therefore, in 2010, the Massachusetts Legislature took a different approach, instructing the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services to report on “how best to provide oversight” of these programs with an eye to both “the health and safety of the home’s residents and any problems created by the operation of sober homes, including impacts on neighborhoods and surrounding areas.”

This report built consensus around the problems and solutions, culminating in recommendations from the Department of Public Health and language in the 2015 budget establishing an accreditation system for ADF housing programs in Massachusetts that went into effect last month.

Currently, independent accreditation is the best available method to create the cultural shift among program operators toward the norms of behavior and engagement that all programs in Boston are expected to exhibit. While individual standards may lack the force of law, these expectations are backed by the force of the dollar. Once fully rolled out, state agency referrals that make up the majority of ADF housing clients will be directed only toward accredited programs. We expect operators to choose the ethical and economic path of accreditation, and all that it entails.

Neighborhood groups with concerns about particular programs are encouraged to bring them to the Massachusetts Association for Sober Housing (MASH), which will administer the accreditation program and associated inspections in Massachusetts. Additionally, our staff members stand ready to answer questions from residents, to assist MASH in identifying sober homes, and encourage accreditation among the operators in our neighborhoods.

We ask residents to reach out to our offices with the addresses of any sober homes in your neighborhood so they may be contacted about these changes. For more information about the accreditation process contact MASH at 781-472-2624.

Evandro Carvalho represents the Fifth Suffolk district in the House of Representatives. Frank Baker serves District 3 on the Boston City Council. They are both residents of Dorchester.

Editor's Note: In 2010, the Reporter and Northeastern University's Initiative for Investigative Reporting did a series of stories on sober homes in Dorchester. Read our coverage here.