Two O.C. lawmakers seek federal help with sober-living homes

State Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) joined fellow Sen. Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) in asking the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department for help in cracking down on what they say are unscrupulous sober-living facilities.
(File Photo)

State Sens. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa) and Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Niguel) have asked the federal Housing and Urban Development Department for help in cracking down on what they say are unscrupulous sober-living facilities.

In a letter last week to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, Moorlach and Bates said federal laws regulating access to the disabled are hampering efforts to regulate sober-living facilities.

People recuperating from alcoholism or drug addiction are categorized as disabled under federal law. The two lawmakers say that has allowed some sober-living facility operators to exploit transients, using their insurance for profit.

“We’ve had sober-living homes where when the insurance runs out, [the clients] end up on the streets,” Moorlach said in an interview.

“Opioid addiction has soared, and unscrupulous rehab operators have rushed in to take advantage of mandatory mental health treatment coverage required by the [federal] Affordable Care Act,” the lawmakers wrote in their letter.

“The quality of care in these facilities is not consistent and does not always adhere to a specific set of standards,” they added. “As a result, patients and their families can be misled, misdirected and misdiagnosed by unqualified individuals.

“The California state Legislature has recognized that consumers with substance use disorders have disabling conditions and need to be protected. However, the policies that have come down from the federal level do not allow the Legislature to act.”

HUD declined to comment Tuesday.

Moorlach represents the 37th state Senate District, which includes all or parts of Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach, Anaheim, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Newport Beach, Orange, Tustin and Villa Park.

Bates represents the 36th District, which includes Rancho Santa Margarita, Mission Viejo, Laguna Hills, Laguna Niguel, Aliso Viejo, Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Oceanside, Vista, Carlsbad and Encinitas.

The lawmakers also appealed to the U.S. Department of Justice along with HUD to “issue a new Joint statement on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act to allow local governments to uphold national standards and best practices in sober-living environments for the protection of residents in recovery.”

The two said a previous statement in November 2016 “only involved zoning regulations and added to the confusion in our districts on this issue.”

Municipalities that try to regulate the addiction treatment homes run into “lengthy and expensive litigation, and the legal landscape remains murky,” the senators said.

Perhaps no city better exemplifies that than Costa Mesa, which for years has faced legal challenges from some sober-living home operators who claim its rules unfairly discriminate against people recovering from drug and/or alcohol addiction.

City ordinances adopted in 2014 and 2015 imposed new permitting requirements and specified that local group homes, sober-living homes and licensed alcohol and drug treatment facilities must be at least 650 feet from one another in residential areas. The City Council adopted additional regulations in 2017 aimed at increasing transparency and preventing people who were evicted from such facilities from becoming homeless.

Costa Mesa has successfully defended its rules in court so far but has paid a hefty price — upward of $4.8 million in legal fees and other costs — to do so, according to the latest city figures.

An eight-person jury returned a unanimous verdict in favor of the city of Costa Mesa on Friday, wrapping up a month-long trial in federal court and a four-year legal battle over a claim by sober-living home operators that a city ordinance unfairly discriminates against people recovering from drug and/or alcohol addiction.

Moorlach said he also is working on reforms in treatment of the severely mentally ill.

“There’s all this money going to mental health, but not to serious mental health issues,” he said.

State laws meant to halt “institutionalizing” patients have led to “migrating these people out of institutions into the streets and in jail, so the largest mental health institution in Orange County is at the main jail,” Moorlach said.

He said he is seeking more federal money for “appropriate outpatient treatment to help normalize them and get them back to a normal life, and not back onto the streets.”

HUD, for instance, doesn’t provide money for temporary housing, “so we need to modify the rules and regulations at the federal level.”

“I see this [letter] as an effort to communicate [that] something must be done,” Moorlach said.

Daily Pilot staff writer Luke Money contributed to this report.

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12:27 p.m. Nov. 26, 2019: This article was originally published at 10:44 a.m. and has been updated with additional information.