Greg Kirschner, legal director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, testifying during a public hearing on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017 on legislation that seeks to regulate sober houses. | Mike Savino, Record-Journal
February 28, 2017 10:05AM
By Mike Savino
HARTFORD — Lawmakers are considering legislation that would further regulate so-called “sober houses” as municipal officials continue to raise concerns about the number of facilities that operate without their knowledge.
The legislature’s Public Health Committee is considering two bills that would require sober homes to register as a business with a host municipality and with the state Department of Public Health. Additionally, one of the bills would require staff training and for the facilities to have the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
Sober houses are intended to offer living quarters to recovering addicts looking to escape from friends, relatives, or others they fear might lead to relapse.
Municipal leaders expressed support for the idea amid a state and national opioid epidemic crisis, but raised concerns that some houses are operated by landlords who are simply looking for renters, and have no interest in helping people recover from addiction.
“We have no idea where these homes are,” said Torrington Mayor Elinor C. Carbone. “We have no idea who’s buying or operating sober houses.”
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities estimated more than 170 sober houses exist across Connecticut, but several local officials raised concern that some landlords aren’t maintaining the dwellings to be safe places for residents.
Additionally, they expressed concern that landlords focused only on income won’t work with renters on sobriety, making it difficult for addicts in their recovery.
Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said one of the concerns is that sober houses are a “safer environment for those going through recovery.”
Opponents of the legislation said regulating sober houses, or even requiring them to register, would violate the federal Fair Housing Act because recovering addicts are recognized as being disabled, one of the classes protected from housing discrimination.
“There’s no reason and no legal basis,” said Greg Kirschner, legal director for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. He questioned how lawmakers would define a sober house for regulatory purposes, and whether it would apply to situations where recovering addicts move back in with family.
Kirschner said sober houses can only be subject to regulations or registry requirements if the state also requires a license — the facilities provide no treatment or services, only housing — or provide financial aid that can come with stipulations.
Short of that, Kirschner said, state and local officials can focus on “bad actors” but can’t single out homes merely for housing recovering addicts.
Meriden City Councilor Miguel Castro said the city was able to cut down on the number of sober houses after city departments cracked down on building and zoning violations. He also said city employees looked for signs that landlords themselves discriminated against any of the protected classes under the Fair Housing Act.
Castro said sober houses have the potential to provide a benefit to the community by giving recovering addicts a better environment upon discharge from rehab, and the council wanted to target only those with poor intentions.
“We wanted to make sure that if they’re in compliance, that we support them, but if they’re not, there could be possibilities that we make sure that these sober houses out of compliance don’t touch our communities,” he said.
During a May 2015 informational meeting prompted by concerns about sober houses in Meriden, former City Planner Dominick Caruso said the city is one of the few statewide that requires people that run sober houses to register with the city. He said at the time that there were 14 sober houses in the city, but that in 2006, there were 42.
Opponents of the legislation raised concerns that regulations would deter building owners from operating sober houses.
State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam Delphin-Rittmon said her agency received more than 60,000 requests for addiction-related treatment last year. She also said the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner estimates deaths from heroin overdoses will top 700 this year.
Delphin-Rittmon said sober houses play a “valuable next step” for recovering addicts after they leave rehab or a state-licensed halfway house.
“It can provide affordable housing in one’s community of choice,” she said. “It can offer valuable peer support while an individual participates in recovery services and outpatient treatment.”