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Feds Side With Sober Living Homes in Case That Could Affect L.A.

Despite Justice Department's challenge to a Newport Beach law to limit the facilities, Los Angeles officials say they are pushing ahead with a similar ordinance.

The U.S. Justice Department has thrown a possible kink in Los Angeles' attempt to regulate group homes in single-family neighborhoods, entering into a lawsuit challenging a similar law enacted by Newport Beach.

The department's Civil Rights Division earlier this month filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of three sober living home operators who allege that the Orange County city's law discriminates against people with disabilities. People addicted to alcohol and drugs are considered disabled in the eyes of federal law.

With the L.A. City Council expected to vote in coming months on , the federal intervention cheered advocates for sober living in Los Angeles.

"We would hope that with that brief, somebody at the city attorney's office will reevaluate their ordinance," said Jeff Christensen, a spokesman for the Santa Monica-based Sober Living Coalition.

The city attorney’s office did not return phone calls for comment. But a spokesman for Councilman Mitch Englander, one of the prime backers of Los Angeles' ordinance, said the Justice Department’s action won’t stop the city. The city attorney is researching answers to some questions raised by another councilman, and the ordinance could be coming to the City Council before Thanksgiving, said Englander spokeman Matt Myerhoff.

Newport Beach enacted its law in January 2008 in an attempt to regulate the number of sober living facilities springing up in the seaside community’s neighborhoods, drawing the ire of residents. Sober living organizations immediately filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the law was intended to prevent additional homes from opening in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act. Last March, , saying the sober living homes failed to show they were harmed by the ordinance. The Justice Department in its brief said the judge ignored evidence that the city was intentionally targeting sober living homes, noting that residents at hearings said the homes housed “criminals.”

The Justice Department also pointed out since the ordinance was enacted no new sober living homes have opened in Newport Beach.

Los Angeles has been wrestling with its own group home ordinance since 2007 when then-Councilman Greig Smith first proposed one to address a rising chorus of complaints from his Valley neighborhoods, including Chatsworth. Some complaints focused on true sober living homes, but the bigger problem for many Valley residents were virtual boardinghouses that called themselves sober living homes and rented rooms and even just bunk beds to dozens of transient tenants.

In drafting Los Angeles' ordinance, city planning staff turned to Newport Beach’s effort after determining it, among other California cities’ ordinances studied, was most likely to survive a legal challenge. Among elements Los Angeles borrowed from Newport Beach was a requirement that all tenants in a house be under one lease, the idea being to ensure that residents in a house in a single-family neighborhood be a single family unit rather than a group of transients coming and going at different times.

The Justice Department argued in its brief that the single-lease requirement was a hurdle intentionally designed to discourage sober living homes.

Christensen, of the Sober Living Coalition, said Los Angeles needs to take the Justice Department's action seriously. The department wouldn't enter the case "unless there was a pretty cut-and-dried violation" of federal laws, he said.

"Before the City Council acts on this it would be prudent to take another look at it."

Estelle Goldman October 27, 2011 at 08:07 PM
The U.S. Justice Department needs to keep out of our neighborhoods and stop telling us what rights we have and do not have. We the people have civil rights and so do our families and so do our children and grandchildren. These Sobor Living homes DO NOT belong in our single family neighborhoods!!
Tom Rees October 28, 2011 at 12:09 AM
Sorry, neighbor, but you could not be more on the wrong side of the fence. Number 1, your fears of sober livings are misguided. Fear of the Department of Corrections halfway house program is where you read the horrific stories about prisoners escaping, etc. Regular, well run sober livings are full of harmless people who are as normal as you and me except they have decided to take their lives back from the awful disease of addiction or alcoholism. For having the courage to be an EX-addict or an EX-alcoholic, you want to banish them to where? industrial neighborhoods? Nope, sorry. They are Americans with rights to live wherever they please. You would be very hard pressed to cite to me any damage or harm that has come to a single neighbor of a well run sober living. My fellow Americans who are afraid of these houses are mixing them up with DOC houses and the prisoner programs. Do a little reading and stop acting and speaking out with ignorance. This is ONE time when the Feds have it exactly right, and they are helping put their foot down when a bunch of idiotic city officials who are taking their cues from misguided neighborhood fears need to be told where their line of power stops dead in the water. My advice is that you spend some time better understanding that when it comes to addiction and alcoholism, the people you have LEAST to fear are those that have chosen to fight their disease rather than succumb to it -- just like a cancer patient fighting for his or her life.
Tom Rees October 28, 2011 at 02:09 AM
P.S. I for one, feel especially embarrassed to see a neighbor who can't even spell the word "sober" correctly talking as if they know better where the people in these houses belong -- or moreover don't belong. It is as ignorant towards the sober living residents to take your stance now as it was in the deep South towards blacks not too long ago. And I'm a white guy from New York City who remembers those days and values neighborhood safety as much or more than anybody reading this.
Saul Daniels October 28, 2011 at 09:41 AM
Do you have good relations with a sober living home on your block?
burt October 28, 2011 at 10:40 AM
Alcohol and drugs are a choice that people make,no one told them to start using or consuming. They opted to go down that path...unlike cancer..those people dont have a choice. So should those criminals like convicted felons or sexual predetors who take the "first step" to recovery also be allowed into residential areas? They may be just as normal too. They too have an addiction and by what I've read it sounds like they also have a right to be in a resdental group home. A well run sober living home....right? Food for thought
Ana M. October 28, 2011 at 07:38 PM
Take the emotion out of "feeling sorry for the recovering alcoholic or addict" & put yourself in the shoes of a young family who work hard - bought a home for their children to have a back yard to play in. Then suddenly someone purchases the house next door - turns it into a sober living - a well run sobering living. The owner does this because the owner cares for the recovering person & only allows one person per bedroom so it remains manageable. The tenants are newcomers with 90 days sober - fresh from treatment. They follow all of the rules. They don't chain smoke outside, they don't cuss or stay up late talking on the patio, they go to bed at a reasonable hour, so not to wake the innocent family next door who must wake up early to get to work & take their children to school on-time. This is my idea of a well-run sober living, but unfortunately that's not the case. Most sober living owners run their homes to make a profit. They house 4 to a bedroom with bunk beds. The tenants have absolutely no respect for neighbors, they aren't capable & don't know the first thing about homeownership. The owner of these homes doesn't live there so imagine living in an apartment building without management. Your neighbor above is 300 lbs, heavy footed & walks so had that you feel your whole apt. shaking as if an earthquake hit. Sober livings are businesses - all about profits - 12 people X 600.00 a month ='S chaos & drama for the neighborhood & you do the math for the bank account.
Ana M. October 28, 2011 at 07:57 PM
Mr. Daniels, you won't find a legitimate person to stand up & say they have good relations with a sober living. If they are honest, they will admit that the police are often called & from time to time there are problems with the clients, i.e. loud noise, smoking, parking issues, foul language, outside visitors (some old friends who are still using). The owner/manager apologizes & swears it won't happen again, but it does & will continue to happen because newly sober people are learning to live a new life which is foreign to them. What? Put my cigarette out in an ash tray- I will flick it in the street! What? Don't park my car in front of the neighbor's house so they can't put their trash cans out on trash day. What? Don't chain smoke because there are young children playing in the back yard next door. Keep me posted if you find a real honest neighbor who has good relations with a sober living. And if any owner of a sober living was running an honest program - why aren't they following the law? The city ordinance says: you cannot run a business in a residential neighborhood. The poor day care lady must go door to door for signatures before she's allowed to have a licensed day care. I think sober livings should too! Make it mandatory to have 80% signatures of the neighborhood before allowing a sober living to run its business in your neighborhood - just like a day care!!! Who wants to live next door to a crack head who will relapse & break into your house?
Ana M. October 28, 2011 at 08:13 PM
Mr. Rees, I agree with you in that "the people you have LEAST to fear are those that have chosen to fight their disease rather than succumb to it" if only it were true that every recovering person got it on the first try. Be honest, what is the percentage of people who get sober, stay sober? Be honest, relapse is a reality. Be honest, admit that you are biased and that you make money off of sober livings and or recovery. Be honest, you don't own a home. Be honest, you don't pay property taxes. Be honest, admit that you don't have small children. Be honest, admit that the well-run sober living that you speak of - does not exist. Addicts and Alcoholics who have been clean & sober for a few years have learned to live a new life but newly 90 day wonders sit on the fence and each day have a choice of using "one more time" and when that happens, any person in the path is subject to harm whether that be a loved one or a neighbor. A friend of mine at work just experienced her husband relapsing after 4 years. He went out and smoked crack. He stole her car and crashed. As she was trying to get the keys away from him, he hit her and then as he drove off, he almost ran her over. Why? Because he wanted another hit. And, that's after 4 years of going to meetings and working the steps, so why should anyone what to risk their family with living next door to this type of madness? Tell me why? Why should I work hard to pay the mortgage to live next door to this?
Ana M. October 28, 2011 at 08:15 PM
P.S. I apologize for my typos. I am far from perfect and embarass myself on a daily basis so please forgive me.
Tom Rees October 31, 2011 at 11:54 AM
Dear Ana, With all due respect, I have listened to your ramblings long enough to make a very specific observation. This is not an attack, it is an observation. You are talking purely out of your imagination and your imagination is filled with fear because it is not filled with knowledge. You also feel like you have a superior view to those who oppose you and you wander very far away from the subject to try and make an obtuse point. Let's just clear up all the things you think you know about me by addressing your statement that I make money on sober livings, suggesting that is why I advocate them. My dear, I was making a million dollars a year on Wall Street until I got so sickened by how the financial world really works that I had a crisis of conscience and decided to give of myself to those who were in need. I lost a brother from drugs and alcohol who committed suicide and despite what you all think about addicts having choices, they don't. One kid tries a drug and never tries it again. the other kid tries the same drug then can not stop thinking about taking it again, and that is all he thinks about, like it or not. the second kid is diseased. My brother was an angel of a soul and because we were adopted, I am certain his mother drank through her whole pregnancy. the first time alcohol touched his lips, he made no choices thereafter - it took him away. And even with that event I "don't feel sorry" for alcoholics and addicts. But I do champion those who choose to fight it.
Tom Rees October 31, 2011 at 12:32 PM
I have not made a red cent in over four years giving of myself and $ and I have spent thousands of hours researching this disease. I am sorry about your friend's husband hurting his wife, but I once again challenge you to cite a single incident of a neighbor being harmed in any way by someone who lived in a good sober living. All that dark talk of yours is your imagination but it is not unwarranted. As far as good relations with neighbors, I ran 2 houses for over two years with only 1 neighbor who realized what we were doing and after we talked, he rested easier. He had 5 daughters age 3-12. The problem is there ARE some bad sober livings out there and we need to find a way to shut them down without closing down the good ones. But people associate ALL addicts with crime and there are millions of prescription pill addicts and alcoholics who are not criminal by nature. I lived with hundreds of them and watched them battle their demons up close and personal with NO criminal activity - so DON"T STEREOTYPE - it is ignorant and offensive. And of course relapse is a part of getting better, but the guy who goes home after treatment will relapse over 90% of the time within a year. Just 6 months at a sober living, and the relapse rate drops to 50%. IT IS A DISEASE THAT KILLS LIKE CANCER and if you could reduce cancer's kill rate from 90% to 50% you would feel as passionately as I do. GOD has given me this voice, because I felt the way you do about addicts for much of my life.
Tom Rees October 31, 2011 at 03:14 PM
Lastly, you are grossly mistaken about the money you think exists in the business. Granted, a boarding house that stuffs four in a room could make money -- if they could find residents to live in those conditions. I am an authority and considered a leading expert in sober livings and I will tell you that most houses run $400-$800 a month, put 2 people in a room and average 6-10 beds. Sure, if you do the math with no vacancy everything looks wonderful, but that is not anywhere near the reality of the situation so once again you are talking completely outside of an area you have not one shred of firsthand knowledge about, and that is what really bothers me about the way you go on. You write as though you have actual knowledge when you have nothing but fantasy after fantasy to suit the general way you feel about sober livings - prejudiced. You'd have everybody believe it is all as horrible as you say it is. Do you really think the local police and the government would have tolerated sober livings even in their imperfect form such as they are for 20 years if anything were happening to women and children? You know nothing of drugs and alcohol, their true effect on the human brain, and the example of drugs you use is of a crack-crazed man who was already high having a fight with his wife. Do you think anyone would be so stupid as to use drugs, especially crack which has a very distinct smell, in a house that would advocate he be arrested? It just doesn't happen that way Ana. Sorry.
R. Grace Rodriguez, Esq. November 01, 2011 at 03:44 PM
What is so terribly misguided in all of this discussion is the belief that passing a law which would outlaw or limit sober living in some capacity is going to somehow magically decrease a homeowner's chances that they won't get a bad neighbor. I think the chances in this economy are equally good you are going to get multiple families living in a home together because they can't afford housing on their own. Owned a house in Adelanto once where there were 16 people (all family mind you) and they behaved no better than any other group of people living in a small home with lots of kids and stress. There would be fights, beer bottles and trash on my front lawn every weekend! I moved to another place and had a neighbor that him and his wife would start drinking and then they would fight. Police were out at least once a month at all hours of the morning. Years ago when I lived out in Rancho Cucamonga, had a house with sober living. Yeah they had problems periodically. BUT the manager there was smart. He went around door to door to all the neighbors. The fellas there agreed to be a garden and housecleaning crew. Anyone in the neighborhood who wanted handy work done around their house or someone to move stuff, or lift heavy things, could call up the house and FOR FREE the guys would come over and take care of it. They called it practicing the 12th Step. They got to be useful to the neighbors, and we accepted them. I wonder why we don't see more of that?
Andy Andrews August 06, 2012 at 09:21 PM
How about an opinion from someone who actually lives in a sober house, aka me! Unfortunately Ana is right. I live in one of the nicest sober homes in my area. Doing the math of 11 people x $700 a month = $7700 if the house is full. Don't forget the $700 sobriety deposits the house is always pocketing from the people that relapse. And boy, do they relapse! They come 'home' drunk and loaded. We do the best to catch them in the act, but many times we don't. So, they are driving drunker than hell right in your neighborhoods. Add in all the rude smokers, with their stench and cigarette butts everywhere. You will be hard pressed to find 1 out of 10 people in recovery who aren't chain smoking addicts. It is disgusting but true. And they are slobs. The aren't held accountable for anything. And the sober homes won't spend the money to improve the looks of the neighborhood. Ours is even a non-profit house, and even after 8 recent relapses (so $5600), they still can't even buy us a working vacuum. They are crap holes. Even the ones that look nice and promise the world. Trust me, you don't want THIS in your neighborhood. Stolen cars. - Yup! Sneaking around all hours - Yup! Stolen stuff - yup? Things stolen from our own sober rooms - YUP! Even got it on video. You are living next to a bunch of crooks and liars. Don't let them in. The sad part, when I leave work today, guess where I am going.. Home to a sober house. I hate it. -Andrew
Julie Walmsley October 12, 2012 at 06:07 PM
I'd like to talk to you about your experience. I'm a reporter writing about the experience of living inside sober living houses - the peaceful and functional ones and the so-called bad apples. JAWalmsley@gmail.com

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