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More Oversight Needed for Sober Homes

April 25, 2019 GMT

Sober homes, as a recent Boston Herald article indicated, are surfacing in neighborhoods, often without notice, prompting a slew of lawsuits and complaints.

The federal Fair Housing Act designates those who live in group homes while in recovery from substance abuse as disabled, making them a protected class. Instead of being regulated like lodging houses, sober residences are treated the same as single-family homes.

Even in the best of circumstances, the under-the-radar arrival of sober homes in neighborhood settings has fueled the ire of unaware residents. In Lowell, a meeting held in May 2017 to provide information on the opening of Zack’s House, a sober residence on Pawtucket Boulevard, became heated when those who live in the area questioned a perceived lack of transparency in the home’s development.

The facility was named in honor of Zachary Gys, a 21-year-old Lowell resident who died from a heroin overdose in 2013, a story explored in heartbreaking detail in The Sun.

In some cases, unannounced openings of these facilities -- some no more than rooming houses for recovering addicts -- have left recovery advocates and state lawmakers calling for more oversight.

Massachusetts Alliance of Sober Houses, a nonprofit under contract with the state, operates 182 certified homes statewide with more than 2,000 beds. Certification is voluntary, not mandatory. That’s why Executive Director Larissa Matzek estimates her organization oversees only about one-third of the sober houses in the state.

Certification has helped eliminate unscrupulous operators, but doesn’t require the remaining ones to work with municipalities. Another obstacle for acceptance is the lack of information about these facilities, which can sow confusion and resentment among potential neighbors.

The terms “sober home” and “recovery residence” mean different things in Massachusetts. Recovery residences are a licensed level of care in the state with mandated minimum staffing. Sober homes are not licensed or funded by the state.

Legislation on Beacon Hill would require that municipalities be notified when new houses are certified. Democratic state Rep. Liz Miranda, whose district includes Dorchester, said she also wants to look into mandatory certification .

Not all sober homes are bad neighbors. Many are lifelines for those striving to rid themselves of alcohol or drug dependency. Some, like the many in Lowell that operate in the downtown or its fringes, can dispense a vital service with minimal opposition. It’s when these facilities infiltrate into neighborhoods that prompts outcries over lack of transparency, public safety and decreasing home values.

The federal government decades ago to put the onus for the caring of the mentally ill and drug dependent on communities, rather than in public institutions. That’s not going to change. But mandating the notification and certification of these sober homes should at least ensure facilities in residential settings are professionally run and respectful of that neighborhood’s character.