Feds offer advice on regulating sober homes

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.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

9 members of one family among 17 killed in duck boat accident on lake in Branson, Missouri 
9 members of one family among 17 killed in duck boat accident on lake in Branson, Missouri 

A duck boat accident on Table Rock Lake in Branson, Missouri, killed 17 people Thursday night, including the boat’s driver and nine members of an Indiana family, according to authorities. Fourteen other people were injured. >> Read more trending news  Update 8:45 a.m. EDT July 21: The Stone County coroner confirmed to KSDK that...
Ousted small-business owners claim racial bias in garbage hauling
Ousted small-business owners claim racial bias in garbage hauling

A pair of black small business owners have accused the Solid Waste Authority of failing to live up to its commitment to help small businesses by ignoring their complaints when a large hauling company dumped them. By not forcing the large hauler to retain the companies, the authority failed to assure that business opportunities filter down to all parts...
Cerabino: Florida’s NRA mouthpiece reaches for a silencer
Cerabino: Florida’s NRA mouthpiece reaches for a silencer

Florida’s chief NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer is standing her ground in a whole new way. This month, the 79-year-old grandmother and the guiding hand of permissive gun legislation in Florida for decades, filed a 129-page federal lawsuit that is mostly a compilation of the bitter, profane and sometimes threatening emails she received after the February...
Millions fall for South Carolina dentist in viral ‘In My Fillings’ dance video
Millions fall for South Carolina dentist in viral ‘In My Fillings’ dance video

A dentist in Greenville, South Carolina, is inspiring millions to get their teeth cleaned after taking on the Drake-inspired “In My Feelings” dance challenge. Dr. Rich Constantine’s version of the “shiggy” -- a dance inspired by the rapper -- has over 24 million views on Facebook. >> Read more trending...
Dozens turn out for Riviera town hall in call to action to end violence
Dozens turn out for Riviera town hall in call to action to end violence

Less than a week after two people were gunned down in separate shootings in Riviera Beach, more than 50 concerned citizens gathered for a town hall meeting to voice their concerns about the violence plaguing the city. Those who attended the town hall were adamant that the bloodshed must end and came to make their voices heard. Also in attendance were...
More Stories