Sober Home NIMBYs – The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I think this is a phenomenal article succinctly capturing the current state of affairs of sober living residences and government regulation, nationally. It is a debate and discussion which needs to be had.

“Rapid growth of the sober living industry has sparked nationwide concerns about the lack of regulation, and homes like these are not welcome in many neighborhoods.”

From The Desert Sun, in Palm Springs, California.

Just a year ago, Benjamin Schneider was a homeless meth addict, living in a dirt lot behind a shelter in Indio, unwilling to stop getting high so he could go inside.

Schneider began selling drugs to feed his addiction. Then, he stopped smoking meth and started injecting it, crossing a line he promised himself he would never cross.

Last fall, Schneider hit rock bottom. He stuck a needle in his arm, but his tolerance was so high that he felt nothing. If he did not stop, he believed, he was going to die.

“I knew I needed structure in my life,” Schneider said. “I had none. I had no responsibility, no accountability. That was what I needed If I was going to get back to a normal life again. … I found that at the Palm Tee.”

Today, Schneider is a model tenant at The Palm Tee, the largest sober house in the Coachella Valley. Every morning for the past six months, he has rolled out of his hotel bed in this place — another day in sober living, another day of sober life.

More than two dozen men, all recovering addicts, rent rooms at the Palm Tee, a boutique hotel that was converted into a sober home three years ago. The men meet every morning in what was once the hotel conference room, where they swap stories of encouragement and support. They take a breathalyzer test every day. Every few days, there is a drug test. Sometimes a tenant fails a test, and they must leave the Palm Tee. Most of the time they all pass, creeping another step towards sobriety, together.

Over the past three years, The Palm Tee and its sister facility, the Alexander Inn, have housed hundreds of addicts, helping many towards recovery. These converted hotels are the latest evolution in local sober living industry, which has existed in the desert for decades, but was nearly invisible until recently.

Sober houses, sometimes called sober living facilities, are residences that rent space to recovering addicts, but don’t offer any addiction treatment or counseling. Generally, addicts move into a sober house after a stay in a rehab clinic, but before they are ready to live alone. The only service offered at the sober house is a place to live with strict rules, where addicts can battle their demons as a group, with support, instead of alone, with none.

The Coachella Valley has dozens of these sober houses — at least 25, and possibly as many as 50 — but most are easy to overlook. They are just a normal house on a normal street, or a pair of condos tucked neatly into a neighborhood. Most are indistinguishable from regular homes.

But the Palm Tee and the Alexander Inn are different. Because these sober homes were converted from small hotels, they are larger, more profitable and more visible than any sober home in the desert. They have taken desert sober living to the next level, and as a result, these sober homes have drawn more backlash than their predecessors, prompting heavy scrutiny from the city of Palm Springs and a flood of complaints from neighbors.

The Palm Tee, which has beds for about 30 men, and sits on Highway 111, on the southern edge of the Deep Wells Estates neighborhood. The Alexander, which only accepts women, sits at the corner of Sonora Road and Via Soledad in the Tahquitz River Estates neighborhood.

Both of these sober homes have operated for three years in quiet defiance of the city orders to shrink or shut down. Palm Springs officials have repeatedly told the sober homes they do not have the proper permits or the proper safety equipment to stay in business, but the homes have kept their doors open regardless, insisting they are being unfairly targeted.

The company that owns the two sober homes, Intervention 911, has sued the city, claiming officials are discriminating against addicts. Intervention 911 claims that the city is trying to suffocate the sober homes through over-regulation to appease neighbors that have complained about sharing the neighborhood with recovering addicts. City officials insist they are simply enforcing zoning rules and building codes, which they say the sober homes have blatantly ignored.

“They are saying we are doing this because we don’t like recovering alcoholics,” said Palm Springs Attorney Doug Holland. “The city is not anti-sober living facilities. But what we do have is an issue in how we review them depending on where they are located. It is very clear that these (properties) have a certain kind of use under our codes … “They may say they are still an apartment, or still a hotel, but we know they are not a hotel. A hotel is open to anyone who wants to rent a room. They are exclusive.”

Intervention 911 is owned by Ken Seeley, a nationally recognized interventionist, and his partner Eric McLaughlin. They purchased The Palm Tee and The Alexander in 2011, and have been fighting with the city ever since.

During an interview last week, Seeley called the city’s arguments “a joke.”

Seeley said that, although sober houses have operated in Palm Springs for years, no other homes have been forced to chase the same permits or withstand the same stifling scrutiny as the Palm Tee or the Alexander. The neighborhood opposition is the only difference between these homes and their predecessors, Seeley said.

“All of the others could operate without a (permit) without breaking the law. But we are breaking the law?” Seeley said. “It just doesn’t make sense.

Currently, Intervention 911 and the city are in settlement discussions, but negotiations appear to have soured. A trial may be inevitable.

Not in my backyard

Although the city of Palm Springs says that neighborhood complaints have not influenced their scrutiny of the Palm Tee and the Alexander, there is no denying that neighbors want the sober homes gone.

For years, neighbors have run a “not in my backyard” letter-writing campaign against the two sober homes, urging the city to get rid of the facilities. The most common concern is that the sober homes will attract drug dealers and criminals, however, the city has said these fears are unfounded, and police have said there has been no significant rise in crime since the sober homes opened.

Neighbors have also complained about noise, crowded streets, litter and “edgy” people loitering in the area, according to numerous letters and federal court documents.

Steven Richett, a recovering addict who manages the Palm Tee and the Alexander, said the neighbors complain because they are ignorant about sober living. Neighbors assume the sober homes will cause trouble because they know nothing about the facilities or the people who live there, he said.

Drug dealers would go bankrupt trying to find customers at the sober homes, Richett said. Neighbors complain about noise, but the sober homes have strict curfews and quiet hours. There have also been complaints that tenants use too many parking spaces or leave dog poop throughout the neighborhood, but many of the tenants don’t have cars and none of them have dogs, Richett said.

“There is a stigma. As soon as they hear sober living, they think the worst,” Richett said. “Ever since ‘those people’ moved in down the street, they are looking to blame us for everything — for anything.”

Schneider, the Palm Tee’s model tenant, had a similar response to the complaints. If the roles were reversed, Schneider said he would welcome a sober house as his neighbor. Places like the Palm Tee and the Alexander bring peace and order, not crime, he said.

“The amount of crime and drug dealing that goes on without (a sober house) is far greater than the noise complaints or the lack of parking that exists because there is one,” Schneider said. “Without these sober livings homes, each and every person who inhabits these rooms would be out doing who knows what.”

Although Richett and Schneider dismiss the complaints, the neighbors are not alone in their fear of these sober houses. Rapid growth of the sober living industry has sparked nationwide concerns about the lack of regulation, and homes like these are not welcome in many neighborhoods.

Unlike rehabilitation clinics, sober homes are not licensed or regulated by government health authorities because they offer lodging but no treatment. And sober homes aren’t required to have business licenses either because, according to federal law, they aren’t businesses. The homes collect untaxed “contributions” from their tenants, but the law treats them like a family sharing living expenses, not a landlord renting rooms.

To fill the void of regulation, many sober homes join self-regulating coalitions that set quality standards, but this affiliation is not mandatory to open a sober home. Ultimately, the lack of regulation can be attractive to someone who is trying to make a quick buck, so some sober homes open their doors with the intention not to help vulnerable addicts, but to profit off of them.

At their best, sober homes can be a saving grace for addicts, offering a bridge between treatment and complete independence. At their worst, sober homes can backfire, becoming little more than crowded drug dens run by slum lords that cash in on addicts desperate for help.

The challenge, experts say, is telling the difference.

“There are many that see sober living as a financially lucrative opportunity,” said Krista Gilbert, the CEO of Michael’s House, a Palm Springs addiction clinic. “They are not dedicated to recovery, and it can be challenging for the consumer to determine who is dedicated to that mission and who is not.”

Gilbert said she believes in the effectiveness of sober houses, but Michael’s House is especially selective in what houses it recommends to its clients. To be eligible for referrals, sober homes are required to open their doors to a full inspection.

Currently, Michael’s House only refers to four local sober homes — including The Palm Tee and the Alexander.

The “Martians”

Controversy over the two sober homes began in late-2011, shortly after the Alexander first opened its doors to addicts. In an effort to introduce itself to the neighborhood, the new sober home held an open house, inviting the public to come tour the property.

Almost immediately, complaints poured in to the city. One city official said the neighbors reacted as if “Martians had landed,” according to federal court documents.

Complaints intensified a few months later, when Intervention 911 expanded into the Palm Tee.

Two months after that, the city ordered both sober homes to apply for special permits to operate the hotels as “assisted living facilities.” The company applied for those permits, but city staff recommended the applications for denial, insisting that the hotel properties were zoned only for tourism.

The dispute continued for the next year, with Intervention 911 and the city trading arguments about whether sober homes should be classified as hotels, group homes, assisted living facilities or something new entirely. Intervention 911 argued that the Alexander and the Palm Tee weren’t assisted living facilities because no actual treatment occurred at the properties, but the city insisted it had a policy that classified all sober homes in this way, an therefore required a special permit.

Palm Springs is the only city in the Coachella Valley that requires sober homes to be permitted in this way. Most local sober homes operate with no special permits of any kind.

The dispute escalated in December 2012, when the Palm Springs Fire Department reclassified both properties as treatment facilities. As a result, Intervention 911 was ordered to install fire alarms and sprinkler systems, neither of which were required when the properties were hotels.

Intervention 911 filed its lawsuit in June 2013. The company argued that Palm Springs officials had discriminated against addicts, a disabled group, by over-regulating the two sober houses. The company also argued that the city intentionally obstructed the Alexander and the Palm Tee to appease the neighbors.

In court, the city has repeatedly insisted that the neighborhood complaints had no effect on its scrutiny of the two sober houses. However, in July, a federal judge said there was at least “circumstantial evidence” that the city had “discriminatory intent.”

Last month, the city abruptly reversed its longstanding position on the sober homes.

During a meeting on Dec. 10, the Palm Spring planning commission reluctantly approved permits for both properties, but slashed their tenant capacities by half. Commissioners also waived the requirement for fire sprinklers.

However, even as the commissioners voted, they questioned why they were doing such a thing. Some worried about setting a precedent — telling businesses they could do whatever they want, then get the permission later.

“This business has been operating illegally and blatantly without permits and proper approvals, and major code violations, for over two years,” said J.R. Roberts, a commission member. “It seems like a number of things we are doing here are highly unusual, and I have concerns about how we justify it to future applicants.”

Holland, the city attorney, said the reversal was part of an effort to settle the lawsuit through compromise.

However, the deal appears to have backfired, because the capacity conditions created by the planning commission have only extended the dispute with Intervention 911. Attorneys for the sober homes recently appealed the decision to slash capacities, and both homes have continued to operate at full capacity, ignoring the decisions of city officials.

Self-regulation

Sober houses have existed since the 1970s, but most of the opposition to these facilities has surfaced in the last decade, in response to a expansion of the industry.

The sober living industry boomed during the 2008 housing collapse, when many desperate homeowners rushed to open sober homes, hoping that they could pack in addicts to turn a profit and pay their mortgage.

The surge in sober homes led to a decrease in overall quality, and many of the new cash-grab homes became overcrowded or crime-ridden. Today, all sober homes struggle with a damaged reputation.

Darwin Neidlinger, the clinical coordinator for the Riverside County substance abuse program, said that many of the cash-grab sober homes that opened during the housing collapse have since closed their doors, ultimately leaving the legitimate, well-intentioned homes to face the “backlash.”

To combat this stigma, many sober homes have banded together into self-regulating coalitions that require owners inspect each other to make up for the lack of government oversight. In Riverside County, a few dozen homes have formed the Riverside County Sober Living Coalition, including about 10 homes from the Coachella Valley. The Alexander and the Palm Tee joined the coalition last year.

Neidlinger said county addiction clinics will only refer patients to sober homes that have joined the coalition. In the absence of government oversight, self-regulation is a “good start,” he said.

“I think it sets a standard that they all adhere to, and if you don’t have that, then sober houses can get kind of willy-nilly in how they are operated,” Neidlinger said. “You have to have structure in some living homes, otherwise they can just get to be like flop houses.”

The sober homes in the local coalition are mostly concentrated in Palm Desert, but there are also coalition homes in Indio, Indian Wells, Thousand Palms and Palm Springs. These facilities are small — one house or two — and are generally run by recovered addicts who want to help others escape the grip of addiction.

But despite their grand intentions, these sober homes worry that someday their communities will turn against them.

Some owners say they have only survived because they have maintained a low profile — just another house on another block. Some say it is only a matter of time before neighbors complain.

“I know they are coming for me soon,” said Bob Hutton, the owner of Desert Awakenings, the only sober home in Indian Wells. “Every one of my neighbors says I’m the best neighbor they’ve ever had … But I know, eventually they are coming my way.”

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About Jeffrey Lynne

Jeffrey C. Lynne is a South Florida native, representing individuals and business entities relating to licensing, accreditation, regulatory compliance, business structure, marketing, real estate, zoning and litigation pertaining to substance abuse treatment facilities and sober living residences. Mr. Lynne has been recognized across the region as a leader in progressive public dialogue about the role that substance abuse treatment has within our communities and the fundamental need and right to provide safe and affordable housing for those who are both in treatment for addiction and alcoholism as well as those who are established in their recovery.

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