When a sober home isn’t helping their patients get better, there’s not much officials in Palm Beach Gardens or any other city can do. But that could soon change.
Addiction is classified as a disability under federal law, so people who are in recovery are protected by the Fair Housing and Americans With Disabilities Acts. When a municipality’s regulations are challenged, the U.S. Department of Justice almost always intervenes on the side of sober home operators.
However, Delray Beach at its Jan. 24 City Commission meeting passed a measure that requires people to make new requests for “reasonable accommodations” for disabilities every year. Sober home operators can request such accommodations, for example, to allow more unrelated people to live in a single-family home than local ordinances permit.
Palm Beach Gardens could take similar measures. City Attorney Max Lohman, whose legal firm also represents Delray Beach, said he’s taken the same basic structure and applied it to Palm Beach Gardens. He’s drafted the framework for the basic application process, specified what application information is confidential under the law and made it clear there is no fee.
He also outlined the approval, denial and appeals process. Code enforcement would be suspended while it goes to appeal, he said.
As in Delray Beach, the requests should be renewed regularly, Lohman said. The need for a special accommodation, such as a wheelchair ramp, could expire, he explained.
The reasonable accommodation request system would be staff-intensive to implement, he said.
Mayor Marcie Tinsley said the topic should be discussed again at a future City Council meeting and staff should research it further.
Lohman said the state legislature, which has a session that begins in March, plans to look into the issue, too. An expert from the Sober Home Task Force is expected to give a presentation to them, so it would be prudent to wait and see what happens, he said.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-West Palm Beach) is also working hard to address the matter, Lohman said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice issued a 20-page document of guidelines on regulating sober homes in November.
The guidelines issued in question-and-answer format were done at Frankel’s request. She persuaded an assistant HUD secretary to visit in May and arranged a tour of some of the most infamous sober homes in Delray Beach.
The HUD guidelines are for all housing, including group homes such as sober homes. Sober homes are where recovering addicts and alcoholics live when they get out of rehab and are largely unregulated.
Palm Beach Gardens has taken other steps to crack down on unscrupulous sober home operators. Police Chief Stephen Stepp last month said it has joined State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Homes Task Force.
Investigations of patient brokering and health care fraud are coordinated through the state attorney’s office with a Gardens detective acting as a case agent.
SOBER HOME TASK FORCE TIP LINE: 1-844-324-5463