County officials see sober home fix in 1999 federal statement

Stymied in the state legislature and blocked by federal law, Palm Beach County leaders have found what they hope is an alternate route to helping regulate sober homes in residential neighborhoods.

The end-run could be in a 1999 joint statement by the Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development that defines who is protected under the Fair Housing Act and clarifies zoning for group homes.

Spearheaded by U.S. Reps. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, and Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, municipal and county leaders have discussed proposed changes to the five-page statement in two meetings this month .

“The cities certainly appreciate the efforts by State House Rep. Bill Hager, but the true solution will come through federal means,” said Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, referring to an unsuccessful bill sponsored by Hager, a Boca Raton Republican, that included voluntary certification of sober homes. “Right now, we feel we are unable to protect our single-family neighborhoods.”

Concerns about the proliferation of South Florida sober homes, which are communal living arrangements for recovering addicts, have troubled city officials for years because the homes are not regulated, or licensed, and do not have any kind of registration requirements.

Addicts are considered disabled under federal law. The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act protect them from housing discrimination.

Haynie said the lack of oversight or ability to enforce some zoning rules leads to overcrowded homes, parking problems, transiency and neighborhoods with clusters of sober homes.

“You can have a home, you just shouldn’t have the whole neighborhood,” said Richard Radcliffe, executive director of the Palm Beach County League of Cities. “That doesn’t help people assimilate back into the community.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development issued a statement saying it is in communication with Frankel “to better understand the community concerns regarding sober houses.”

The discussion comes as law enforcement is taking an increased interest in sober homes. On Sept. 11, the FBI raided Good Decisions Sober Living in West Palm Beach, which is housed in the Green Terrace condominium.

Ken Bailynson, who incorporated Good Decisions Sober Living in 2012, began buying units in the condo community in 2011. He became president of the association within the last year. He or the association owns about 55 percent of the Green Terrace’s 84 units.

Police calls to Green Terrace totaled 180 in 2012. The calls increased 40 percent last year to 253, according to West Palm Beach records.

Recovery center leaders believe the Green Terrace raid is the beginning of a crackdown on halfway houses, which differ from state-regulated treatment centers.

John Lehman, president of the Boca Raton-based Florida Association of Recovery Residences, said he has worked with law enforcement this year to uncover possible illegal activity, helping connect witnesses with investigators.

In general, he said law enforcement is looking into insurance issues and “patient brokering”, where a recovering addict may be offered free rent or other incentives to live in a sober home if they use a specific drug testing facility.

“There is some clean up taking place,” Lehman said. “Everyone is going to be scrambling to get all their ducks in a row.”

Lehman believes there is room to improve the sober home model in South Florida, but said changing the statement from the Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development is a “serious threat to the recovery community.”

He fears changes will give city governments carte blanche to kick out sober homes through zoning ordinances.

Instead, he’s suggested group homes be licensed through the Department of Children and Families at a cost to the homes of several thousand dollars. The licensing fee could pay for auditors to randomly review the homes, but would also weed out unscrupulous providers, Lehman said.

“We believe our approach is both non-discriminatory and provides a greater benefit to all stakeholders,” Lehman said.

Cities have unsuccessfully tried to regulate sober homes on their own. In 2007, a federal judge ruled that a Boca Raton ban on sober homes in residential neighborhoods violated the Fair Housing Act. Delray Beach settled a discrimination lawsuit in 2012 that was brought after it tried to bar the Carron Foundation from opening a recovery facility in the city.

“I just can’t imagine how you are going to say that someone who is part of a protected disabled class is no longer disabled,” said Sid Goodman, vice president for Caron’s Florida operations about the movement to change the definition of who is protected. “Part of recovery is being around a peer group of fellow recovery individuals who can support one another.”

While the details of the proposed statement changes are technical, they boil down to removing the protected class status for people who have not fully completed a course of recovery.

“The cities aren’t trying to stop sober houses,” Radcliffe said. “But if you are doing this for commerce, then you open yourself up to some form of inspections or regulation.”

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