The Village of Wellington may have its hands tied when it comes to regulating “sober houses” in the community, Wellington officials told residents Tuesday.
More than 100 residents flocked to the Wellington Community Center for a town hall meeting, where residents expressed frustration with sober houses — living facilities for those recovering from addiction — and asked what Wellington can do to police them.
The answer, Village Attorney Laurie Cohen said, is not much — at least not without additional state or federal legislation.
“The law says that persons who are in recovery have a disability,” she said. “They have the right to use and enjoy a property. We are not permitted, by federal law, to enact laws that intentionally discriminate against people in recovery or have the effect of discriminating against people in recovery.”
Cohen said that Wellington is doing its best to regulate the sober houses while avoiding lawsuits for discrimination.
“We’re doing everything we can to address this issue, while recognizing that individuals have the right to go through recovery,” she said.
Because addiction is considered a disability, Cohen said Wellington must reasonably accommodate these facilities.
Sober houses have become an issue in many communities across the state, Planning & Development Services Director Tim Stillings said. Boca Raton and Delray Beach have a particularly large number of them and tried to enforce regulations, but faced discrimination lawsuits.
“They are currently not regulated by the state,” he said, noting that they’re becoming a bigger issue in Wellington. “We understand these types of facilities in the neighborhood are sensitive issues. No one wants them in their neighborhood or on their street. We want to do everything we can to protect our neighborhoods, but we also have laws we have to follow.”
There are key differences between a sober house, which is unregulated, and a congregate living facility, which can be regulated. Congregate living facilities must offer a personal service, such as addiction treatment or therapy — or in other cases, elder care.
But sober homes typically just rent out rooms to people who are in recovery for some kind of addiction, Stillings said. Residents must be in treatment to live in the homes.
“They function as a residence used by those who are in treatment,” he said. “It’s an environment that helps them avoid this temptation. Some of them are just providing a bed for the residents to sleep on. They don’t qualify as offering a personal service under the regulations, and they are falling through the cracks in that regard.”
Cohen agreed. “Where we run into a gray area is when these facilities are not providing a service,” she said. “They may be providing them downtown or in another location, but they’re really just supplying a bed to sleep in and very minimal assistance.”
Because many insurance companies will pay for recovering addicts to live in these facilities, some landlords have allowed their rental properties to become sober homes to earn extra money.
Residents pressed staff as to why Wellington couldn’t regulate the homes like they do other businesses.
Stillings said the site operators often use covert means to avoid needing a business tax license.
“They realized that if they don’t provide a service, they don’t fall under the rules,” he said. “We found some of them on the web and said, ‘You are offering a service. It says on your website, with a picture of the house.’ A day later, the picture on the website is gone. They’ve figured out the game.”
Councilwoman Anne Gerwig was present at the meeting and said she understood residents’ frustrations. “We want people to be able to recover, but we don’t want it affecting our neighborhoods,” she said. “But we can’t do anything. Our hands are tied.”
Though many residents expressed concern that the sober homes would lead to more crime, Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Eli Shaivitz said there hasn’t been a spike in crime tied to the homes.
“Crime in Wellington peaked between 2008 and 2009,” he said. “Since 2009, in Wellington, crime has been on the decline.”
He said if residents of a sober house are committing crimes, the PBSO can and will arrest them. “It doesn’t matter where they live,” he said.
Further, he said, most of Wellington’s crime comes from perpetrators who live outside Wellington’s boundaries, not from sober homes.
Cohen said that Wellington is looking into ways to control the homes as best it can.
“We recognize it’s a balancing act between interest of community and interests of those with a disability,” she said. “We are trying to address this in a non-discriminatory manner, because that’s what we’re required to do.”
Stillings said this may include stepping up code enforcement.
“A code enforcement officer can only cite a home if they see something,” he said. “We need residents to step up and make complaints.”
Village staff is also drafting an ordinance that would define sober houses under village code.
Stillings also noted that there are two bills currently before the Florida Legislature that would allow for regulation of sober houses. House Bill 0479 and Senate Bill 0582 are currently in committee review.
Stillings encouraged residents to reach out to their state representatives and urge them to pass the bills. “They need to hear from you,” he said.