Sober homes, drug rehab centers become targets for critics, profiteers

Article Courtesy of The Sun Sentinel

By Anne Geggis

Published February 2, 2016


The battle over the growth in South Florida's drug recovery business is being waged on several fronts – from the halls of Washington to Tallahassee to the streets of Deer Creek community and other neighborhoods.

Critics have taken aim particularly at the proliferation of sober homes, often the first stop for addicts fresh out of treatment who are looking for a substance-free environment to begin again. Some say it's brought an unwanted element to residential neighborhoods and put recovering addicts at the mercy of profiteers.


U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Boca Raton, said it's a "top priority" for her as virtually every mayor in every city she represents has complained to her office about it. She said she's working on legislation and getting cities more guidance for balancing the needs of the those in recovery with the desire to preserve neighborhoods' quality of life.

"The purpose of allowing a group home into a neighborhood is to enable the person to assimilate into a family type of environment," she said. "But if you take a neighborhood and fill it with sober homes, you defeat the purpose of having a group home in a residential neighborhood."

A sign shows that a sober home in Deer Creek community in Deerfield Beach is not a welcome neighbor.

But regulating sober homes has been difficult because federal law treats addiction as a disability protected from housing discrimination. In the eyes of state and local laws, sober homes are not much different than a typical landlord-tenant relationship – even if rent is as much as $30,000 per month.

Until now, though, local governments had no way of knowing just how many sober homes have set up shop. However, a new law took effect January 1 that provides incentives for sober homes to register. So far, 227 statewide have done so, with 165 in South Florida.

And more change could be coming as the state attempts to clamp down on an industry that has been hard to control.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, would stop drug treatment providers and sober home operators from making false or misleading statements about their success rates, or proximity to the beach. They will no longer be able to use call centers to market their services or split fees with the agency that makes a successful referral.

Reforming the industry is "akin to moving a battleship," said Rep. Bill Hagar, R-Boca Raton, who proposed last year's legislation. "This is the first round, and I'm pleased with the progress so far."

Those pushing change say they want sobers homes to do a better job of protecting their clientele and the community from abuses – and have some way for clients from afar to distinguish those homes adhering to national standards. But advocates for the industry say some of these measures amount to political pandering to people's fears about those with substance abuse issues.

"There are unscrupulous property owners who rent homes to people with substance abuse disorders just like there are greedy landlords who exploit poor people and immigrants with substandard housing," said James Kellogg Green, a West Palm Beach attorney. "Why hasn't there been a cry for enforcing existing landlord-tenant laws? The real reason is that politicians have realized that going after people with disabilities is good politics."

Green, who successfully fought Boca Raton's effort to move sober homes out of residential areas in a 2007 case, said it's too early to tell whether the voluntary registration will amount to discrimination.

In the meantime, he's representing New Directions for Youth in a federal lawsuit against The Townehomes of Deer Creek Homeowners Association, Inc. for its refusal to exempt a home there from the association's exclusion of commercial businesses.

Across the street from the sober house, a sign with a big arrow points to the house, "New Direction You are not!!!!! Welcome Here!"

When reached, the president of the Deer Creek master association refused to comment. But Patrick Jolivet also had his neighbors in Deerfield's The Cove put up signs calling out a sober home that set up in his neighborhood in 2012. He was frustrated by the city's unwillingness to stop what he sees as a commercial business coming into his neighborhood.

"These sober homes are being put in places where they don't belong – too close to the schools and what sense does it make to have a rehab down the block from bars?" he said. "They should be miles away from anything so they can be away from the temptation to go back to what they were doing."

He said the neighborhood pressure led the sober home, TLC Recovery, to fold up. The property changed hands in 2014, county records show. Jolivet said his neighbors bought him a pair of boxing gloves at the neighborhood celebration.

At the city commission level, both Lighthouse Point and Pompano Beach have put moratoriums in place on a laundry list of businesses that also stopped new drug treatment facilities from coming into city limits. Lighthouse Point's moratorium expires in May; Pompano Beach, in March. Sober homes, however, are not affected by the regulation.

Still, commissioners said they were concerned that the proliferation of a number of kinds of businesses – including health care in with check-cashing stores, convenience stores, liquor stores, pawn shops, and thrift shops – were overwhelming efforts to encourage retail shops and restaurants.

Out of Pompano's 21 drug treatment centers, seven of them were received their business tax receipts in 2015.

A new set of regulations on those businesses are expected to be up for public hearing on Feb. 9 and then again on Feb. 23.

Boca Raton attorney Jeffrey Lynne, who represents drug treatment providers, said he applauds the city's effort to open up industrial areas to these drug treatment programs, as the proposed zoning changes show.

"We're talking about significant social policy that the city is trying to do it right," he said.