Sober living homes are halfway houses for addicts that are increasingly common as the opioid crisis continues. States, municipalities and even the federal government have been slow to enact standards and regulations for them. The dispute over what regulations are desirable reached Atlantic City recently, where a sober living house has opened in apparent defiance of a municipal ordinance.
In the absence of regulation, some operators “fail to provide meaningful treatment and instead focus on billing insurance programs excessively and unethically,” according to an article last month in the Regulatory Review of the Penn Program on Regulation at the University of Pennsylvania. It said that in Delray Beach, Florida, for example, 70% of overdoses occur within a quarter mile of a sober home — showing they can fail neighborhoods and addicts if poorly run.
Atlantic City, under the oversight of the state Department of Community Affairs in 2018, adopted an ordinance to limit the density of sober living homes in neighborhoods, requiring them to be at least 660 feet from each other. This year, the Hansen Foundation, which operates sober living facilities in the region, opened a home in apparent violation of the ordinance and was ordered by the city to vacate the property.
The foundation said it believes the ordinance isn’t valid because of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevent discriminatory housing practices against those with disabilities — including substance abuse disorders.
In July, however, a federal judge in California upheld a similar ordinance in Costa Mesa that prohibits sober-living homes from being within 650 feet of each other. Operators had appealed a unanimous jury verdict in favor of the ordinance, and the judge ruled that it wasn’t discriminatory or a violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Other cities have had to spend a lot of taxpayer money defending legal challenges to their rules for sober homes. A bipartisan bill in Congress, the Recovery Home Certification Act, would establish quality standards for sober living homes at the federal level.
Atlantic City clearly is allowing sober living homes, which can be an effective part of the broad effort to address the opioid crisis. Given their potential to adversely impact neighborhoods and their clients if unscrupulously operated, the modest restrictions put on them by city government look very reasonable and legal.