December Arrests Spur New Effort to Regulate Sober Houses in Falmouth
By: Brent Runyon
Falmouth officials have renewed efforts to regulate sober houses in town following the arrests of five men associated with a sober house on Locust Street, Falmouth, since December, but their enforcement powers are limited by federal laws protecting people with disabilities.
There are 12 sober houses in Falmouth, and as many as 100 residents living in the homes. The homes are situated throughout Falmouth in residential neighborhoods, but there are no local, state, or federal regulations governing the houses.
Sober houses are run as private boarding houses by house managers who monitor the residents. Some houses have live-in house managers, regular 12-step meetings and require random drug and alcohol screenings, but there is no regulation over who runs a sober house or where the houses are located.
Residents of sober houses are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, and the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1988, which bans discrimination against certain groups, including those with handicaps, in the sale, rental, or use of housing.
In the past month, building officials have investigated whether there are ways to regulate the houses without infringing on the residents’ rights as disabled people.
“We were looking to see if there has been any change in the way of regulations. Thus far, our information is that the residents are still a protected class. We are able to do very little in terms of enforcement,” said Building and Zoning Commissioner Eladio R. Gore.
“We can, if there are issues, still inspect the property and enforce building code. What we cannot do is regulate the use of the property as a sober house,” Mr. Gore said.
"Not-so sober" houses?
Sober houses came to the attention of officials recently when five men identified as sober house residents were arrested for robbery, assault and battery, breaking and entering to a commercial building, and motor vehicle theft in three separate incidents.
Police said all five men were residents of the sober house on Locust Street, Falmouth, but the house manager said only one man was living at the house at the time of his arrest.
Mr. Gore said he has contacted Falmouth police in the past when he learned of illegal activities at sober houses.
Some sober houses can have as many as 20 men living in a home at a time. Mr. Gore said if the sober houses were simply boarding houses, there would be much stricter regulations about septic systems, sprinkler systems, and alarms.
Falmouth Town Counsel Frank K. Duffy Jr. said the town is restricted in its enforcement action by an agreement with the federal government regarding sober houses, after a four-year conflict from 1999 to 2003, between the town and Sharon A. Lennon, the owner of two sober houses on Lake Shore Drive in Hatchville on Jenkins Pond.
The town first tried to shut down the houses after residents complained that too many people were living in the homes. Mr. Gore attempted to enforce the rule that no more than five unrelated people could live in a home together, but Ms. Lennon appealed the decision to the federal government.
Density, zoning exemptions
The US Department of Housing and Urban Development sided with Ms. Lennon and brokered an agreement with the town that stated the town was not liable for discrimination.
The agreement also exempts sober houses from density and zoning requirements, and caps the number of residents in the two homes on Lake Shore Drive at 28 men.
As a result of the agreement, the town rewrote the zoning bylaw definition of a family to include residents of sober houses.
That definition now reads: “A group of unrelated individuals, determined to be handicapped by the Building Commissioner under the Federal Fair Housing Act, state law or this bylaw, residing cooperatively in one dwelling unit up to five individuals or at a density of no more than two individuals per bedroom, whichever is greater.”
Ultimately, Mr. Gore said, it is up to the sober house managers to be accountable for what is happening within the houses.
“We would like to see some more accountability as far as the folks who run these houses, providing some sort of consistency in terms of what services they provide,” he said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Falmouth Human Services Director Karen M. Cardeira, who said the quality of living a sober house provides can vary drastically from house to house, depending on who is living there, and who is managing the house.
“The issue really is that there is really not enough supervision in some of these houses, so the behavior can get out of control,” Ms. Cardeira said.
Falmouth Human Services was part of a collaborative of human services providers that sought several years ago to create a more structured environment for sober house residents.
The Transitional Living Collaborative, a shared project of Gosnold Inc., Falmoth Human Services, Barnstable County Sheriff’s Department, Recovery Without Walls, Falmouth Service Center, Falmouth Chamber of Commerce, Community Health Center of Cape Cod, and Duffy Health Center, worked from 2007 to 2009 to create guidelines and a program for successful sober houses.
The Transitional Living Collaborative sought to hire a full-time case manager for the sober houses, and to provide support services for the residents, but were unable to locate funding.
After the recent arrests, Assistant Zoning Enforcement Officer Aaron J. Perry contacted Ms. Cardeira and asked if the Falmouth Substance Abuse Commission would be willing to renew its efforts to monitor sober houses.
The substance abuse commission has not met yet to discuss Mr. Perry’s request, Ms. Cardeira said.
Many residents of sober houses are referred to by human services agencies after they have left treatment.
The only listing of sober housing on Cape Cod is maintained by Recovery Without Walls, a Falmouth organization focused on aiding women recovering from addiction.
William A. Dougherty, founder and director of Recovery Without Walls, posts the information on a website, including the number of open beds and the cost of a room, and updates it each week.
There is no official listing of who stays in the sober houses, but Mr. Dougherty estimated that 25 percent are Falmouth residents.
He said he tries to post listings for sober houses that he believes provide a quality service, but the houses can change drastically depending on who the other residents are.
According to Mr. Dougherty’s information, sober houses charge anything from $105 a week for a double room to $280 a week for a single room.
The list of sober houses in Falmouth and other nearby communities is available at www.recoverywithoutwalls.org
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