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8 ways to be a good sober home neighbor

July 6, 2016
by Brian Albright
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When Executive Director Erin Helms began planning to open the first of her Woodrow Project recovery homes for women in Cleveland, her initial meeting with local officials didn’t go so well. “We met with the local planning department, and I think that first meeting lasted 10 minutes,” she says. “They basically said, ‘You can’t do this here.’”

Undeterred, Helms contacted the National Alliance of Recovery Residences (NARR) to find out more about where the law stood on recovery housing. Armed with that information, she was able to launch her first house and is now in the process of planning two more homes without any further conflict with the city or her neighbors.

That’s not always the case. Communities are often suspicious of sober living or recovery homes, worrying that their might be criminals in the homes; that drug dealers will target the neighborhood; that the residents will disrupt the neighborhood; or that their property values will decline.

Extreme examples of these community vs. recovery home conflicts can be found in California and in Palm Beach County in Florida, where a surge in sober living facilities has homeowners up in arms (and often in court).

But those reactions are typically caused by misperceptions of exactly what is happening in the sober homes and what types of residents are there—because of the actions of a few poorly run homes.

Decades of experience

The number of sober homes is growing, and the need for recovery housing is greater than ever as the United States struggles with an epidemic of heroin and opioid addiction, and that means more potential community conflicts. NARR has developed a set of recovery home standards, including a good neighbor policy, that can help operators put best practices in place that can improve community relations.

“The good neighbor policies are really a product of decades of experience established in our affiliates around the country,” says NARR president Dave Sheridan. “The central principle is, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it. The policy really centers around courtesy.”

Communication and education are also critical.

“What providers know and understand about the experience of residential recovery is a lot different than the assumptions in the community at large,” Sheridan says. “Those assumptions are often at odds with reality, but they are real to the people making them. Part of the challenge of a good operation is to change those stereotypes, and that takes time.”

Both the recovery community, neighbors and community leaders have to be willing to work together, says Palm Beach County attorney Jeffrey Lynne, whose firm, Beighley, Myrick, Udell & Lynne, represents hundreds of recovery home operators in Florida.

“If a community becomes committed to ensuring recovery residence meets its mission, then everybody wins,” Lynne says. How can a residence integrate better in the community? “It takes both sides coming together.”

While communities have to come to grips with the reality of the need for sober homes, there are things operators can do to smooth the transition. Here are eight strategies to mitigate confrontational reactions from neighborhood groups or city council and to help make sure your recovery home will be viewed as a good neighbor.

1 Know the law and be prepared to educate community leaders

Sober living homes are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the federal Fair Housing Act, and both the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Housing and Urban Development have made it clear just how little cities and counties can do to restrict or regulate these facilities.

Operators should know their rights and be prepared to educate local officials that may be inclined to attempt to zone them (or harass them) out of the city. For example, local zoning laws cannot restrict the location of a recovery residence.

You also have to make clear the difference between an acute treatment facility and a recovery residence and communicate what type of recovery residence is planned.

“Treatment facilities are treated differently,” Sheridan says. “Housing rights are attached to housing. As a disabled individual, a resident in one of our homes has a right to live in the housing of their choice, but they don’t have the right to live in a hospital or hotel.”

When cities overstep those bounds, they often pay a steep price in court. By making sure everyone involved is clear on the law ahead of time, recovery homes can potentially avoid contentious and expensive legal battles that can taint community relations.

2 Join a NARR affiliate and adopt its standards

NARR and its affiliates promote the adoption of its standards, which include good neighbor policies.

“The national standards we adopted were very helpful in giving us direction in how to practice as individual operators and what to promote at the state affiliate level,” says Beth Fisher Sanders, founder and executive director of Hope Homes Recovery Services, which operates in Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Nashville. She is also a past president of the Georgia Association of Recovery Residences and was the founding president of NARR.

Under the NARR framework, state affiliates certify recovery homes to the standard on a voluntary basis. In a few regions, this has been take a step further. In Massachusetts for example, recovery homes have to be certified in order to receive state funding or referrals, and Florida is taking a similar approach with its local affiliate, the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR), which administers the certifications.