The long-awaited guidelines on regulating sober homes released by federal officials this week give cities some legal wiggle room to oversee “group housing,” but firmly forbids local governments from targeting sober homes in their zoning and code enforcement efforts.
The 20-page, single-spaced guidelines released Thursday by the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Justice was issued in a question and answer format and addresses 26 questions raised by local officials.
Among the questions answered:
- Does a city violate the Fair Housing Act if it considers the fears or prejudices of community members when enacting or applying zoning and code enforcement efforts? Yes.
- Can zoning and land-use regulations violate the Fair Housing Act if the city did not intend to discriminate? Yes.
- Can cities enact laws that limit group homes for individuals with specific disabilities? No.
- Can cities impose spacing requirements on the location of group homes, like recovery residences? Maybe.
The guidelines are the first update since 1999 and were done at the request of U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-West Palm Beach) after hearing from her constituents about the proliferation of sober homes in their neighborhoods.
Frankel persuaded an assistant secretary with HUD to visit South Florida in May and arranged a tour of some of Delray Beach’s most notorious halfway houses and a meeting with about 30 local government leaders.
At a news conference Thursday, Frankel stressed that her efforts were not just to protect neighborhoods but also people with disabilities — including drug addicts.
“All of us here absolutely realize the necessity of having safe neighborhoods for everyone, including people with disabilities,” Frankel said. “We want them to feel they are part of our society.”
The guidelines are not specifically for sober homes but apply to all housing, including group homes, like sober homes. The guidelines also address proposed housing and specifically forbid cities from denying plans to build new housing because of concerns that protected groups, such as addicts, will live there.
Still, the guidelines do allow cities to make some decisions on a case-by-case basis and consider the specific characteristics of their communities. In particular, how close group homes can be to each other.
That can be done when sober homes request a “reasonable accommodation” to exempt the sober home from local regulations on the number of unrelated people that can live in a residence.
Many cities prohibit more than three unrelated people from living together in a single-family home. However, cities exempt sober homes because the addicts who live there are disabled and federal law says cities cannot discriminate against them.
Instead, cities must give disabled people an opportunity to be accommodated through a formal, written request for “reasonable accommodation.” To get the exemption, sober home operators must show that it is vital for recovering addicts to live in a family-like setting with others in recovery.
The guidelines released on Thursday offer cities specific advice on reviewing requests for reasonable accommodations and under what circumstances a request may be denied.
Most important, said Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein, is that the guidelines endorse “home rule” and allow cities to make their own decision based on their individual needs.
“This will give us some real levers in terms of home rule authority and to change the way we have been processing requests for reasonable accommodations,” Glickstein said at the news conference. “Until this has been issued, we’ve been told it’s almost impossible to deny them for even the most logical reasons.”
Although Delray Beach and West Palm Beach have vigorous reasonable-accommodation programs, most cities fail to use reasonable accommodations to exert control over such issues as the number of unrelated people living in a home and how many sober homes should be allowed in a neighborhood.
While the power is not absolute, it is a tool - perhaps the only tool - for local governments to have a say over sober homes.
“The agencies recognize that zoning and land-use issues are inherently best determined by local government, Glickstein said, adding that he has asked the city attorney whether the city can impose a temporary moratorium on all zoning applications while city officials digest the guidelines.