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Don't Call Them NIMBYs

Leaving questions of morality aside, homeowners should be concerned about unlicensed group homes.

Last week, while discussing the state of the worldwide luxury real estate market, Jarvis Slade Jr., Christie’s managing director of the Americas, told me that the ups and downs of the ultra-high-end boiled down to one thing: confidence. Even in a recession, buyers wealthy enough to afford multiple luxury residences still have money; they’re just afraid to spend it.

San Rafael’s issues with unlicensed group homes bring up a similar point. Common sense tells us that residents of sober living houses should be model citizens. They’re in these houses, after all, to get their lives back on track.

During the recent debate over unlicensed halfway houses in their midst, residents of Gerstle Park and Culloden Park expressed concerns over noise, parking, traffic and fire hazards. What they should have been worried about is their property values.

Unfortunately, the real estate world is ruled not by outliers but by lemmings. However valid their roots, concerns raised about sober houses in Gerstle Park and Culloden Park, if left unaddressed, will have a negative impact on the neighborhood’s property values.

It’s not right, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s reality. A sober house in the vicinity won’t send home prices spiraling downward as quickly as high crime or bad schools, but it will still be a red flag for many buyers -- if only because it’s not the answer people want when they ask, “So what are the neighbors like?”

Anything that destabilizes a residential neighborhood is going to shake buyers’ confidence and damage property values. That is why you don’t want to buy a home that sits next to an apartment building. Nor do you want to be the only pioneer owner on a street full of rentals. It's the transitory nature of halfway houses -- not an opposition to substance abuse rehabilitation -- that has Gerstle Park and Culloden Park residents concerned.

Despite its overall low crime rate (well below the state average), charming and functional downtown and the wide breadth of its inventory of homes, San Rafael has a reputation as Marin’s other side of the tracks. This is not fair, but consider the context: if your reality is Tiburon or Ross, San Rafael is going to seem gritty.

Part of the problem is the perception that San Rafael is often the first stopping point for former residents of San Quentin. Where do many of them end up? At the city’s licensed – and unlicensed – sober houses. Residents like Steve Patterson, chairman of the Federation of San Rafael Neighborhoods, see it this way: “San Rafael is being viewed as a dumping ground for all kinds of programs,” he , “and now a dumping ground for clean and sober programs.”

Perhaps the answer lies with the present laissez-faire oversight of halfway houses.  “You do not need a license, permit or any other document to open a halfway house,” says the National Institute on Chemical Dependency (NICD) on an informative web site entitled “How to open a halfway house in the United States.” The Federal Fair Housing Act, 42 USC section 3604(f)(2) makes it illegal to discriminate against a person “in the provision of services or facilities in connection with such dwelling because of a handicap.”  Substance abuse, the argument follows, is a handicap.

Sober houses are limited only by zoning regulations, something the city is investigating as it enters a 45-day moratorium period on “large group homes that are transitory in nature.” There are presently 10 licensed halfway houses in San Rafael. How many unlicensed homes have joined them is anyone’s guess.

It’s too easy to label the residents of Gerstle Park and Culloden Park as “NIMBYs" (Not In My Back Yard). For passionate advocates of recovering addicts, the situation in San Rafael seems black-and-white. Like Lindsay Ferguson, program director of Marin Services for Men sober living home, they find arguments opposing sober homes “uncompassionate,” and who knows, some of them may be.

Whatever residents' personal feelings towards recovery are, the bottom line is that Gerstle Park and Culloden Park are not affluent enclaves. For most – if not all – neighborhood residents, their home is their largest single investment. And anything that threatens to compromise the value of that investment is bound to give them the willies.

Chris Highland March 11, 2011 at 07:43 PM
"Leaving questions of morality aside." What more need be said? If the bottom line and final answer for healthy neighborhoods, balanced public policy and something called "community" is property value--what response can reasonable people offer?
Paul Dumont March 27, 2011 at 04:29 PM
Community residences have no effect on the value of neighboring properties. More than 50 studies have examined their impact on property values probably more than for any other small land use. Although they use a variety of methodologies, all researchers have discovered that group homes and halfway houses do not affect property values of even the house next door. They have no effect on how long it takes to sell neighboring property, including the house next door. They have learned that community residences are often the best maintained properties on the block. And they have ascertained that community residences function so much like a conventional family that most neighbors within one to two blocks of the home don't even know there is a group home or halfway house nearby. For a comprehensive compilation of descriptions of over 50 of these studies, see Council of Planning Librarians, There Goes the Neighborhood: A Summary of Studies Addressing the Most Often Expressed Fears About the Effects of Group Homes on Neighborhoods in Which They Are Placed (CPL Bibliography No. 259, April 1990); M. Jaffe and T. Smith, Siting Group Homes for Developmentally Disabled Persons (Am. Plan. A. Plan. Advisory Serv. Rep. No. 397 (1986). See e.g., City of Lansing Planning Department, Influence of Halfway Houses and Foster Care Facilities Upon Property Values.

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