ATLANTIC CITY — A recently adopted local ordinance regulating how close sober living homes can operate from one another is being put to the test in the city’s Chelsea neighborhood.
The Hansen Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit that operates residential housing for those in drug and alcohol addiction recovery, purchased two properties — 16 S. Tallahassee Ave. and 114 S. Raleigh Ave. — whose locations could run afoul of a 2018 law restricting proximity of such facilities to 660 feet.
The two homes are each within the boundary of existing sober living facilities operated by Oxford House on Bartram and Atlantic avenues.
Some homeowners in Chelsea, with the support of their ward councilman, are pushing back against the expanding number of sober living homes in the neighborhood and want the law to be strictly enforced. They say their concerns about the number of sober living homes in the neighborhood center on the impact on safety and property values as well as the overall effectiveness of the facilities when they begin to cluster.
Jennifer Hansen, co-founder of the Hansen Foundation, said she believed the ordinance to be unlawful because it violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Keith Davis, the foundation’s attorney, said his client does not want to pursue legal action and would rather reach an amicable solution with the city. Davis said there is “strong federal case law and statutes that protect the residents of these homes to be able to live where they want to live.”
“All we’re asking for is for these folks to be treated the same way any other family would be treated in any community,” he said. “We’re hopeful that we can achieve that understanding with the City of Atlantic City, and other communities, because the work that Hansen House is doing is really important.”
Hansen said the ordinance applies only to community residences that offer a range of in-house services and supervision, which differ from the state-sanctioned Oxford House locations that are peer-governed recovery homes.
“We’re trying to give (people) safe housing,” she said. “We’re trying to make that housing the highest standard of any sober living.”
A 2018 study conducted by the Walter Rand Institute at Rutgers University-Camden found the Hansen Foundation’s sober living homes had an 80% success rate of maintained sobriety after one year for residents.
“We teach recovering addicts how to get their life back and how to become adults and how to learn how to live again,” Hansen said. “Treatment works. But, you know, people need sober living, and they need well-run sober living houses.”
The Hansen Foundation purchased both properties in 2019, county property records show. The home on Tallahassee was bought for $395,000 and the one on Raleigh for $405,000.
Hansen said she already received an order from the city to vacate the Tallahassee Avenue home after relocating residents from a facility on Bartram Avenue. The foundation is in the process of renovating the multifamily home on Raleigh Avenue, she said.
A request to speak with the city’s licensing and inspections director, Dale Finch, received no response from the Mayor’s Office.
The Atlantic City ordinance has its genesis in regulations found in Florida, where residential treatment centers were beginning to cluster, said 6th Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who represents Chelsea on City Council.
Kurtz said the primary concern in the neighborhood is that it could become a “de facto social services district” and “change the character of the neighborhood.”
In researching how communities in Florida responded, Kurtz and several Chelsea residents said they found a study from Delray Beach that indicated that the clustering of sober living homes had an adverse effect on recovery.
“It’s really not fair to any community to permit a situation under the name of help where a neighborhood becomes so concentrated and so clustered with these homes that it both damages the residential character of the neighborhood and hurts the people it’s designed to help,” Kurtz said. “This is a good law, and it should be enforced.”
Chelsea resident John Sharra said he was concerned about the safety of his family, which includes four children and his wife, because of a sober living home on the beach block of Bartram Avenue.
“I have recovering addicts right behind my house, smoking cigarettes all day,” he said. “I really don’t want it.”
Diego and Emma Escobar have owned a summer home on Bartram Avenue for nearly 25 years. The couple said they met with Finch recently when they heard about the potential for another sober living home opening in the neighborhood.
“We’re not saying that sober living homes shouldn’t exist. We get it. We get them (needing to be) normalized into society so they can get back on their feet, working. It’s a good thing,” Emma Escobar said. “It’s the clustering that we’re concerned about and the density.”
The two houses operated by Hansen and the three operated by Oxford House are known recovery homes, but Kurtz conceded there could be more in the city of which officials are unaware.
Kurtz said he worked with the state Department of Community Affairs, which has oversight of Atlantic City following the 2016 takeover, to ensure the ordinance was both “common sense and compassionate.”
The DCA did not immediately respond to several questions about why the ordinance was adopted in Atlantic City or how it can be enforced.