September 2, 2009
By: Saul Spigel, Chief Analyst
You asked for information on “sober houses,” particularly their structure, government oversight in Connecticut and elsewhere, and funding.
Sober houses are residential facilities that provide a structured living situation for people who are in recovery from a substance abuse disorder. Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery, an advocacy group, estimates there are about 160 sober houses in Connecticut.
Sober houses do not provide treatment, just a place where people in similar circumstances can support one another in sobriety. Because they do not provide treatment, they typically are not subject to state regulation. And, because people with substance abuse disorders are covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Fair Housing Act, state and local zoning and other requirements meant to regulate them are subject to challenge.
The Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services (DMHAS) certifies 39 sober houses for funding through two programs. To be certified a house must agree to meet certain minimum standards and maintain minimum house rules.
Hawaii is the only state we found with a law addressing sober houses. Its zoning enabling statute specifies that sober houses must be permitted as a matter of right or conditionally in all residential zones, but they must meet all applicable county and state laws, codes, and rules. Bills to define and regulate sober houses have been introduced recently in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota; none were enacted.
Sober houses provide a substance-free, structured living situation for people in recovery. Sober housing proponents assert that, for many people with substance abuse disorders, returning after rehabilitation to unstable relationships and negative home life can undermine any gains achieved in treatment and can lead again to substance abuse. Living in a sober house can give these people the time and safety to take care of legal or social service issues and find a job and a permanent place to live.
While sober house structures and operations vary, they share three similarities:
1. the home's operators make sure the residence is free from alcohol and drug use,
2. residents reinforce recovery by giving and receiving peer support, and
3. residents' participation in recovery is voluntary.
Sober houses do not provide treatment; they provide a place where people can support one another in sobriety. They are not licensed by any state agency or subject to state regulation solely as sober houses (they may be subject to building and fire safety codes based on their size). And, because the Americans with Disabilities and the federal Fair Housing acts apply to people in recovery from substance abuse disorders, state and local zoning and other requirements meant to regulate them are subject to challenge.
DMHAS certifies sober houses to participate in its Access to Recovery (ATR) and General Assistance Support Recovery (GA-RSP) programs. To be certified, a house must agree to meet certain minimum standards and maintain minimum house rules. Houses that receive rent reimbursement from DMHAS must meet additional standards. DMHAS certification also requires sober house residents to agree to follow minimum house rules.
Minimum House Standards. All certified sober houses must:
1. operate according to applicable statutes and regulations, including zoning, fire, and safety requirements;
2. be operated or managed by people with at least two years experience with people with substance abuse disorders or, if the operator or manager is in recovery, he or she must be abstinent for at least one year;
3. provide residents access to staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week;
4. prohibit anyone with an outstanding criminal warrant to live there;
5. provide furnished living space for all residents;
6. not permit smoking anywhere in the house and have working smoke detectors on all floors, including the basement;
7. allow no more than two people to share a bedroom;
8. have one working bathroom for every six people, including residents and staff; and
9. have a working kitchen with a sink, refrigerator, oven, and range.
Houses that receive DMHAS funds must also:
1. keep all resident records in a locked location,
2. submit incident reports of (a) serious injuries to residents or staff, (b) criminal activity on the property, (c) arrests of residents or staff, and (d) property damage that would make the house uninhabitable; and
3. communicate residents' discharge, departures, and evictions to the organization that administers DMHAS' General Assistance behavioral health program.
Minimum House Rules. Residents in DMHAS-certified sober houses must agree to follow over 20 rules, including:
1. absolutely no alcohol or drug use on or off the premises,
2. eviction for failing to submit a urine sample when asked by house staff and for committing or threatening violence,
3. no visitors allowed without manager's consent and no guests allowed overnight,
4. mandatory participation in house meetings and community self-help meetings,
5. attend at least four self-help groups a week and have a sponsor,
6. no borrowing money from staff or other residents,
7. sign out when leaving and returning to house, and
8. adhere to house curfew.
Monitoring. DMHAS staff conducts a site visit as part of the certification process and typically visit once more during the year. Staff also visits in response to specific grievances.
State Oversight—Other States
Hawaii is the only state we found with a law addressing sober houses. Its zoning enabling statute specifies that sober houses must be considered residential uses and, consequently, be a permitted or conditional use in residential zones, including those limited to single-family use. But they must meet all applicable county and state laws, codes, and rules. This law also prohibits a county from issuing a permit to operate a sober house without first holding a public hearing in the affected community, but we found no statutory requirement for such a permit (HI Stat. § 46-4).
Bills to define and regulate sober houses have been introduced recently in California, Massachusetts, and Minnesota. None have been enacted.
California bill AB 724 (2007) addressed operations that claimed to be sober houses solely to avoid local regulation but that, in fact, did not supervise residents or limit them to people in recovery. It would have required sober houses to have a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol and required the residents to participate actively in recovery activities.
The Massachusetts bills (H 3808 and 3809, 2009) defined sober houses to require (1) them to provide on-site supportive services such as mental health, clinical rehabilitation, legal, and vocational services to residents and (2) residents to participate in at least 10 hours of group therapy a month. The bills also permitted towns to adopt zoning ordinances authorizing special permits for sober houses if the operator (1) requested a reasonable accommodation, (2) limited the number of residents to that permitted for its square footage by the state sanitary code, (3) permitted annual municipal code inspections, and (4) submitted a parking plan that complied with any reasonable municipal requirements.
The Minnesota proposals (HF 2493 (2008) and SF 2323 (2007)) seemed to be aimed at protecting the rights of sober house residents. They required houses to give residents (1) 48 hours written notice before discharging a resident, (2) information on how to appeal a discharge, and (3) the right to have a third party notified of the discharge. They subjected sober house landlords to state landlord-tenant law and prohibited them from including in a lease a waiver or modification of a resident's rights or remedies under that law. The bills required sober houses to refer residents to counseling and related services provided by licensed drug and alcohol counselors unrelated to the operator. They also subjected sober houses to state and local zoning, building code, density, and occupancy rules.
Local Government Oversight
Local governments often try to restrict the establishment or operation of sober houses through zoning and housing codes, but federal law limits their ability to do so. People in recovery from substance abuse disorders are considered disabled under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Fair Housing Act, particularly its 1988 amendments. The latter law specifically prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, or to otherwise make unavailable or deny a dwelling to any buyer or renter because of a handicap. It requires governments to make “reasonable accommodations” to preclude such discrimination.
Nonetheless, several Connecticut towns have tried to use zoning and other codes to restrict the establishment or operation of sober houses. In 1997, West Haven's fire district sought to require Oxford House-Jones Hill to install additional safety equipment, and the city sought to restrict its operation because seven unrelated adults lived there. The home's owner eventually applied for a special use exception to the town's zoning rules, which was denied. The U.S. District Court agreed that the town and fire district had refused to make a reasonable accommodation and permitted the house to continue. (Tsombanidis, et. al. v. West Haven Fire Department, First District and City of West Haven, 180 F. Supp. 2d 262 (2001), affirmed on appeal December 2003).
Last year, New Haven agreed to settle a suit that claimed the city refused to make reasonable accommodation under the Fair Housing Act by granting Turning Point Foundation a variance from a city limit on the number of unrelated adults who could live together while in rehabilitation. New Haven limited occupancy in such cases to eight individuals plus a manager; Turning Point claimed it needed at least 15 residents in a home for therapeutic reasons. In the settlement, New Haven agreed to allow Turning Point to exceed regulated limits (although the ordinance still stands); Turning Point agreed to make safety improvements at its two houses, including better lighting and emergency exits. The city paid $350,000 for court costs and attorneys' fees.
DMHAS funds sober houses with state and federal money: the state-funded GA-RSP and the federally funded ATR program. DMHAS pays the owner of a certified house on behalf of residents who are eligible for program funds. It pays this rent assistance for two to three months at the fair market rental value determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Once this temporary payment ceases, the resident is expected to pay the rent on his or her own.
Uncertified houses are supported solely by residents' rent payments; DMHAS pays no rent assistance for their residents.