City leaders push federal housing official for sober home regulation
City and county officials from across South Florida are hanging their hopes on the federal government stepping in to help regulate the booming proliferation of sober homes.
Thousands of the homes have cropped up in neighborhoods around South Florida, and Delray Beach has been at the epicenter of the issue, U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel said Monday.
"The stories that we heard today were awful," Frankel said. "In a period of a year, one house had 115 calls to the fire department because of overdoses."
Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, held a closed-door meeting with representatives from South Florida cities and counties Monday at the Crest Theater Library in Delray Beach's Old School Square. The group of local mayors, city managers, commissioners and city attorneys drove by hundreds of sober houses before the meeting.
Also present at the meeting was Assistant Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Gustavo Velasquez. He came to learn more about sober homes and hear what local leaders think the federal government can do to help.
Sober homes are a kind of halfway house for drug addicts fresh out of rehab who are not quite ready to return to society. The homes open in neighborhoods, which neighbors say has led to traffic on side streets and an influx of drug dealers who prey on addicts trying to get clean. People have complained of finding needles in parks and on front lawns.
Because addiction is considered a disability by the federal government, addicts are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. Those protections have made regulating sober homes difficult, and officials are cautious about what they say in case of lawsuits — one reason they met in private.
Frankel said that some operators are doing little or nothing to help recovering addicts, instead simply kicking out problem clients.
Previously, attempts to regulate the homes — even to require licensing — have resulted in lawsuits claiming that stopping addicts from living in the home violates their equal protection as disabled people under the Fair Housing Act.
"We don't want to open up the ADA and Fair Housing Act to changes," Frankel said. "There are colleagues of mine up there who would like to just toss 'em."
Frankel said that getting anything passed in Congress is a long shot given the partisan gridlock that has ground the legislative process to a near standstill.
Velasquez will now travel back to Washington and work with his own department and the Department of Justice to produce a joint statement that should have some weight in court.
The joint statement from HUD and DOJ is expected to arrive by August. Frankel said that the statement will make clear that cities and counties can "deny a request for public accommodation when it changes the character of a neighborhood."
After that, city and county officials hope that they'll be able to limit sober homes based on both quality of service and quantity of homes in a neighborhood.
The question comes in defining how many sober homes will result in changes to a neighborhood's character.
"It's a matter of degree whether [the joint statement] is a game changer or something less than we would like," said Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein. "Where do you reach the saturation point where you're operating contrary to the laws? That's going to be a case by case determination."
(Mod: A related "sober living facility" item is on the Planning Commission's docket for Thursday night's meeting. We will be discussing that here tomorrow.)