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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