Booming sober-house industry lacks oversight


A lucrative, mostly underground industry in which rental-home owners turn their properties into refuges for recovering substance abusers needs improved regulation and oversight in many Valley communities, some sober-house operators say.

Several metro Phoenix communities either turn a blind eye to the booming industry or have overly strict rules for the houses to operate legally, and many businesses choose to operate in the shadows, the owners say.

“Pretty much all of it’s being operated beneath the radar,” said Gilbert resident Bill Wilson, a commercial pilot who operated sober houses for five years. “Everyone’s jumping on board, and it’s getting a little scary.”

Sober-living houses, similar to halfway houses, can accomplish much good for their residents, who often have just been released from a rehab center or jail and have nowhere else to go, Wilson said.

The group homes provide a transitional place where residents can forge new relationships, become more responsible and work toward independence. They live in groups of 10 or 15, on a temporary basis, and are subject to strict house rules.

Many sober houses require residents to hold a job or attend school full time while maintaining a drug- and alcohol-free lifestyle and submitting to random drug tests. They often have curfews and require residents to complete daily household chores.

“Sober-living houses are definitely a good tool,” Wilson said. “It helps a lot of people, gives them a nice, safe environment. They have a lot more freedom than if they were at a facility.”

At their best, the homes can help recovering addicts move toward sobriety. On the other hand, some look to evade detection while operating illegally and cram several residents into a single bedroom or even the living room to sleep.

Part of the problem might be overly restrictive regulations in some communities, where many houses operate without legal zoning, said Steven Collins, who owns six sober houses in Mesa.

Phoenix, Gilbert and Peoria, for example, prohibit sober houses in residential areas, according to municipal officials. Glendale and Chandler allow the homes, but only with approval of a special permit that typically requires a public process and administrative fee.

Mesa requires group homes to register and abide by separate requirements but does not require a permit or public-approval process.

“The cities need to wake up and get realistic with society,” said Collins, a retiree who said he feels inspired to continue running the homes after losing his son to a drug-induced heart attack. “The ones that are under the radar, they don’t pay the taxes, don’t get the fire inspections.”

Bill Berry, of Resurrection Street Ministry in Chandler, said his non-profit organization helps group-home operators file the paperwork necessary to become legal. Berry said he is contacted by group-home owners about five to 10 times a week, but about two-thirds of the owners don’t follow through in registering their business.

Some operators want to fly under the radar because they are afraid of government regulation and want to avoid taxes, Berry said.

Wilson, who decided to get out of the sober-house business when competition grew too steep, said some houses charge around $150 per week for each resident and can fetch thousands of dollars a month — typically in cash — in revenue.

Wilson rented his sober houses to women and estimated about 100 recovering addicts came through over five years. About half left on positive terms, having stuck with their commitment to remain clean.

Officials in Gilbert have recently recognized the need to change the town’s zoning code relating to sober houses and are considering a new ordinance that would grant legal status to homes that receive a permit.

While the sober-house concept is nothing new, Gilbert’s Land Development Code does not address that use in residential neighborhoods.

The town’s definition of a “family” allows for as many as five unrelated individuals living in a single household, but sober houses typically include more, zoning administrator Mike Milillo said.

Gilbert’s code does allow certain group homes for people with disabilities, but the sober houses differ in that they are not licensed by the state and do not provide treatment for residents, Milillo said.

Last year, town officials became aware of at least two sober houses operating in Gilbert, though one has since shut down, Milillo said.

Rather than take action against the other facility, town officials began working on a way to legalize and regulate the business.

The Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 prohibits cities from implementing policies that exclude or discriminate against people with disabilities and requires them to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow them “equal opportunity to use and enjoy housing,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Alcoholism and drug addiction are considered mental or physical impairments under the act, and individuals working through recovery are included in that protected class, according to the Department of Justice. The act, however, does not protect people currently using drugs or who have been convicted of selling drugs.

A policy statement from the American Planning Association suggests that cities are required to bend zoning rules to allow for halfway houses within residential areas rather than banish them to commercial or industrial zones.

Although halfway houses more closely resemble multifamily housing than single-family, they work best in single-family residential neighborhoods, according to the association.

Many cities only enforce their zoning codes when prompted by a complaint, but Wilson said he would like to see the sober-house community regulated more closely. Wilson said he’s concerned with the “rapid uncontrolled growth of the sober-living houses in Gilbert in the last three years.”

Milillo also acknowledged a rise in the number of houses recently, a trend he attributed to the housing bust and ensuing flood of foreclosures. Some investors see the sober houses as a way to make their properties more productive, he said.

“Obviously there’s some demand out there … so they saw an opportunity here,” Milillo said. Article Link…

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