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Moratorium on Group Homes Causes 'Legal Challenges', Lawyer Says

City may face "legal challenges" after unanimously approving a moratorium on all group homes.

City council members unanimously approved a 45-day moratorium on all unlicensed group homes despite threats of a legal challenge from an attorney representing two sober living facilities.

Since the beginning of February, residents in the Forbes and Gerstle Park neighborhoods about possible parking problems and traffic congestion caused by two sober living facilities on 1 Culloden Park Rd. and 201 Marin St.  Both of these facilities provide no treatment for the recovering alcoholics or addicts who would be living there and could house between seven and 15 people, although it is unclear how many people are currently living in these locations.

Small and large residential care facilities are not uncommon in San Rafael, but they are licensed by the state and provide nonmedical care and supervision for those living there, according to San Rafael Municipal Code. The new facilities are unlicensed and are not permitted under San Rafael zoning, according to City Attorney Rob Epstein.

Since the Culloden Park and Marin Street properties will not offer medical care or treatment, they are able to operate without state licensing regardless of how many people may live there, Epstein said.

Attorney Matthew Gorman, representing the operators of both sober houses, wrote a letter to the city a few hours before the March 7 city council meeting saying a moratorium would be “highly problematic and would expose the city to legal challenges if the city council proceeds.” Instead, he volunteered his cooperation with the city to find a solution.

On top of being vague and rushed, the moratorium violates privacy laws, equal protection rights, uniform housing code, zoning regulations and the Federal Fair Housing Act, Gorman said.

“Both the Federal Act and the State Act (of the Fair Housing Act) treat persons recovering from drug and alcohol addictions as individuals with a disability,” Gorman said. Discrimination in housing based on this disability is prohibited, according to the Fair Housing Act.

Jonathan Parkhurst is a recovering alcoholic and former operator of a San Rafael sober living home. “Without funding from the county, [sober living homes] require a large amount of people living in the house,” he said.

The Culloden Park property, operated by Bay Area Sober Living, LLC., charges a monthly $4,000 for shared room and board and could house up to 15 people.  Fire safety and sanitation become difficult with more people and no regulations.

“There are bad sober groups homes and there are good ones,” Parkhurst said. “The moratorium is a short-term Band-Aide to a long-term problem.”

Cities all over the state and country are struggling with how to regulate sober living facilities.  Garner, N.C., Columbus, Ind. and Dalton Township, Mich. have all been sued by the United States Department of Justice for attempts at regulation, according to Epstein.  Los Angeles is currently revising its zoning to address the problem and West Hollywood was recently involved in a lawsuit involving rent control and clean and sober living homes.

"We need to investigate this and we need to understand it," Mayor Albert Boro said. Boro sees the moratorium as a necessary “time out” to study zoning and state law regarding groups more thoroughly. The moratorium does not apply to group homes housing less than six people.

“They should be operating these kinds of facilities in commercial, not residential areas,” San Rafael resident Jennifer Turek said.  Turek is a business owner and recently dealt with financial problems.

Months back, the Culloden Park and Marin Street properties were on the real estate market. After the price dropped and there were still no buyers, the owners leased the houses to Bay Area Sober Living, LLC. and TLC Residential, Inc. The companies then converted them to sober living homes.

Turek sees this as an attractive possibility for people fighting foreclosure, like herself. “If everyone can (rent out their homes to businesses like Bay Sober Living). Everyone will,” she said.

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Want more details on the city council meeting? Check out our .

Melanie Haiken March 08, 2011 at 11:23 PM
I attended the meeting last night and thought the decision-making on the moratorium seemed very fair and even-handed. For an example of how this is playing out in other cities similar to San Rafael, see this article on a Sober Living home in Somerville, Mass: http://www.thesomervillenews.com/archives/2605 What I put together after listening closely last night and doing a bit of investigating is that for-profit companies and landlords are exploiting a series of legal loopholes in the law to make boatloads of money by turning large, single-family homes into rooming houses after they fail to sell for elevating asking prices in a down economy. Loophole number one: classifying alcoholics and addicts in recover as "disabled." This law was intended to prevent employers from discriminating against people with a history of drugs/alcohol and was not intended to apply to housing. Since when is someone who claims to be in recovery disabled as it relates to housing? Certainly they don't need physical accommodation etc. Legal loophole number 2/3 is a very clever backwards catch 22: They avoid the licensing requirements that would normally apply to halfway houses by providing no treatment, while at the same time avoiding the normal zoning laws and codes that would apply to rooming houses by calling themselves "sober living" houses. And if there's no treatment and only one manager for 13 or 14 men, how can the City or residents have faith rules and safety codes will be enforced?
Chris Highland March 09, 2011 at 06:27 PM
I looked at that article. Very different. Reality check time: the article states that people observed "drug deals, public drinking and hypodermic needles spilling out from the home." What have people actually "observed" in San Rafael? We hear about "potential problems." This is what we incessantly hear from our "neighborhood protectors" about homeless folk, immigrants, mentally ill neighbors and anyone we don't want to see, hear or deal with. Could it be there is one "potential problem" being overlooked: our fearful avoidance of truth and lack of commitment to a truly healthy community that must honestly face our sickness, our addictions, and our own ignorance?
Nicole Ely (Editor) March 09, 2011 at 09:14 PM
Thank you for the comment Chris. One thing that a neighbor noted when I was talking with her is that many of the individuals who would live in these homes would've already sought treatment. So it's not like there would be drug or alcohol-related activities in these homes. I think the larger question is regulation. Many people who spoke at the meeting said that with a large number of people living together sanitation and fire safety can become more difficult to maintain. And if there's no regulation it's harder to ensure that these individuals are being treated right, especially when they are in a state where they need support and guidance.
Chris Highland March 10, 2011 at 04:15 AM
Sure Nicole. I get that. It's obviously important to maintain safety in the home. Wouldn't it be nice to hear this concern, for the people IN the sober living home, from the "concerned" neighbors? What fuels and fans the actual fires of these angry and ignorant attacks toward "the other" is rarely a genuine concern for the most vulnerable members of the community. Heaven help those in the neighborhood associations if they, or their children, ever get sick (addicted or mentally ill), because chances are their "neighbors" won't want them around (my comments arise from over thirty years experience attempting to find ways of including those who are excluded. These can be educational moments for the most rational, but therein lies the rub).
Diana Martin March 12, 2011 at 03:48 AM
I own a sober living home in Santa Rosa, CA. I am also an addict with 9 years clean. The funny thing about all this is that most of my residents are 18-24 kids from well-off areas like San Rafael. Addiction is a disease & it doesn't care how much money you have or how professional you are. I work with families all the time who are dealing with their kids' addiction & having to get educated for the first time. Many parents are just like the ones supporting this moratorium, but once they get educated they understand the importance of these homes. I really hope none of these self-righteous San Rafael residents ever have a child or family member who's an addict, but the odds are they will. When they're looking into treatments & sober living for their family member they will have to actually get educated instead of acting & speaking out of fear & encouraging good old fashioned discrimination....
Tracy March 12, 2011 at 10:57 PM
I feel that people are missing the point of why the neighborhood residents are upset about new the Sober Living facilities moving into San Rafael. It's not that these are sober living facilities. We have a lot of these sober homes and organizations in San Rafael. Believe me, we would much rather have the people who are camping out in the open space area of Gerstle Park living in homes than in tents. The Gerstle Park Neighborhood Association has a great relationship with Center Point. The clients help us with our annual Spring Fling and Picnic. As a daughter of two parents that were alcoholics, there was nothing that made me happier that seeing the guys from Center Point laughing and participating in the three legged race at our picnic last summer. It was really something. It's not that we don't want these homes in our neighborhood. We have these homes in our neighborhood. The problem is the amount of people that will be living in these homes. 11 people and 2 staff in a 4 bedroom home that isn't an apartment complex? There isn't parking for 2 cars at the house on Marin St., much less 13 cars....that's if there are no guests. It doesn't matter that the people living there are in recovery. I can understand people living together to support each others' recovery. It would have been nice if TLC would have chosen two homes to place the 11, not just one. But I guess that wouldn't make sense for their bottom line.
Paul Dumont March 26, 2011 at 04:05 PM
To answer your question "Since when is someone who claims to be in recovery disabled as it relates to housing?", 1988. Please read the Code of Federal Regulations which makes specific title 42 of the United States Code, found at: 24 C.F.R. PART 9—ENFORCEMENT OF NONDISCRIMINATION ON THE BASIS OF DISABILITY IN PROGRAMS OR ACTIVITIES CONDUCTED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT § 9.103 Definitions. Individual with disabilities means any person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment. As used in this definition, the phrase: (1)“Physical or mental impairment” includes: (ii) Any mental or psychological disorder, such as mental retardation, organic brain syndrome, emotional or mental illness, and specific learning disabilities. The term “physical or mental impairment” includes, but is not limited to, such diseases and conditions as orthopedic, visual, speech, and hearing impairments, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Human Immunodeficiency Virus disease (symptomatic or asymptomatic), mental retardation, emotional illness, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Paul Dumont March 27, 2011 at 04:33 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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