Frustrated Palm Beach Gardens residents want limits on sober homes

Frustrations about sober homes changing the character of one of Palm Beach Gardens’ oldest neighborhoods bubbled over Thursday night.

A crowd of red-shirted residents packed the City Council meeting to call for tighter controls on such homes in their neighborhood around Gardenia Drive, south of Palm Beach Gardens High School, east of Military Trail and west of Interstate 95.

Resident Preston Holmes said there are five sober homes in the area, and seven more have been purchased. One of the homes on Althea Way has frequently drawn police activity, said Holmes and a neighbor who brought a photo of four police cars lining the street.

“If I wanted to live in Lake Worth or Delray, I would have moved there,” Holmes said.

Read The Palm Beach Post’s reporting on the addiction treatment industry here.

Sober homes, or halfway houses, are different from rehabs. Rehabs are the treatment centers where addicts get clean and are regulated by the state. Sober homes, where recovering addicts and alcoholics live when they get out of rehab, are largely unregulated. No treatment is supposed to occur at the homes.

City Attorney Max Lohman said there are no regulations the city can impose specifically on sober homes. The Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act protect recovering addicts and alcoholics from discrimination, posing a challenge for municipalities seeking to limit the proliferation of sober homes.

For example, Lake Park’s insurance company a few years ago refused to pay for the town’s fight to shut down one sober home. Likewise, Boca Raton spent about $1.3 million in legal fees trying to keep sober homes out of residential neighborhoods.

The Department of Justice almost always intervenes on the side of the sober home operators, since recovering addicts are protected because of their disability, Lohman said. However, federal law doesn’t protect addicts who are still using illegal drugs, he said.

Former Mayor Mike Martino on the PBG Watch blog last month urged the City Council to be more proactive about addressing sober homes. He suggested they create a database of sober homes; modernize and tighten parking and health codes; work with neighboring municipalities and the county to “prevent the problem from being passed on;” and to consult with the business community to come up with solutions.

Mayor Marcie Tinsley, Councilwoman Maria Marino and Councilman Carl Woods told residents they’re frustrated by the issue, too, and have been trying to find ways to solve it without triggering expensive litigation.

“We’re all together in this. We all live here,” Woods said.

Local governments are able to impose limits on the number of unrelated people living in one house or require landlord permits as long as they apply them uniformly to all houses Lohman said.

Federal law also gives cities the power to keep tabs on sober homes through a review of “reasonable accommodations.” Some cities hold a public hearing to review the requests, such as to exceed occupancy limits. That tends to discourage applicants.

Some residents asked the City Council to find better places for sober homes than their neighborhood, where kids ride their skateboards and bikes. The city can’t segregate people based on their disability, however, Lohman said.

Lohman said he thinks a new state law will help by taking out the profit margin for unscrupulous treatment center operators who engage in so-called “patient brokering” with sober homes.

As of July 1, licensed residential treatment centers can only refer patients to sober homes or halfway houses that are voluntarily certified by the Florida Association of Recovery Residences.

“It has taken awhile. I do think you will start to see some positive effects from it,” he said.

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