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Editorial: A ray of hope for neighborhoods besieged by sober homes

Editorial Board | Palm Beach Post

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West Palm Beach, May 8, 2016 | comments

For far too long, the spread of hundreds of sober houses has been destabilizing neighborhoods across Palm Beach County. And municipal officials have felt helpless to do anything about it because of the interpretation of two landmark federal laws meant to protect people with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act defines “disability” to include alcoholism and drug addiction. The Fair Housing Act makes it unlawful for cities to discriminate on the basis of disability status, including addiction.

Sober-home operators have used these laws potently to fend off regulations on how they operate, and where they may set up. Boca Raton found that out in 2003 when it tried to prohibit a sober home from operating in a single-family neighborhood. The city went to court and lost, paying close to $1 million in legal fees.

That defeat has stood as a costly example ever since, scaring officials in other towns into inaction.

As a result, as the Post’s Joe Capozzi reported last Sunday, exasperated homeowners from Delray Beach to Wellington and Palm Beach Gardens now cope with the sight of needles in driveways, the sound of sirens at night, even the ghastliness of a corpse being carted away by the medical examiner.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Assistant Secretary Gustavo Velasquez (right) and Congresswoman Lois Frankel (left) addressed members of the ... Read More

But now, thanks to a patient and persistent effort from U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, there is a hope of breaking this legal logjam.

On Monday, she escorted a high-ranking official of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on a tour of some Delray sober houses, and to a meeting with about 30 local government leaders.

The payoff came when the HUD assistant secretary, Gustavo Velazquez, said he would work with the Department of Justice (DOJ) on guidelines for towns that want to enact laws to stem the proliferation of sober houses.

The goal: balance “the legal protections for people with disabilities and the ability for people to live in safe healthy neighborhoods,” Frankel said.

Frankel could have sought to amend the ADA through legislation, but rejected the idea for fear opponents would seek to gut the entire law, she told the Post Editorial Board recently.

So over a year ago, joined by four other representatives including Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, she asked HUD and DOJ to clarify three questions that are now in legal limbo: Can cities prevent an “over-concentration of sober homes” that “fundamentally changes the character of a single-family neighborhood”? What is the definition of a sober home? Can state or local governments require sober homes to be licensed or regulated?

It took more than a year to get Monday’s answer from Velazquez that, yes, new guidelines should be coming, possibly as soon as August.

Known as a “joint statement” by the two federal agencies, those guidelines should provide strong ammunition in a court case.

A city would have to mount a test ordinance, and success in court isn’t guaranteed. But getting even this far is a big step toward giving local governments a fighting chance at creating reasonable controls on poorly managed sober houses that are clearly tearing down the quality of life in many local neighborhoods.

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