Commentary: Sober living homes are businesses that need local oversight

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, left, accompanied by Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in 2014.
(Lauren Victoria Burke / AP)

Imagine that you recently purchased the home of your dreams. You worked, saved and sacrificed for years and finally reached the point where you could buy a house. You move in, excited about the start of your new life, and settle happily into your routine.

Shortly thereafter, the house next door to you sells and a group of people moves in. You start to notice things, like the number of people living there and the corresponding lack of parking. You see that individuals are constantly moving in and out of the house sometimes only for weeks or even days at a time.

Then, among other things, you notice an increase in police activity on your block and around your home, and become concerned about the character of the neighborhood in which you chose to live with your family.

You call your local city council and report your concerns, and you’re told you may live next to a “sober living home.” They wish they could help, but their lawyers have already told them their hands are tied.

This is an illustration akin to the experience of many homeowners throughout Orange County and other communities throughout our country. Sober living homes are single-family residences that supposedly provide a clean and safe living environment for individuals recovering from alcohol or drug addictions.

In truth, they are businesses operated by outside entities, many of which are the scourge of the surrounding neighborhood and a false refuge for the addicted. The facilities lack oversight, enforceable best practice standards and are largely unlicensed because of federal law that designates recovering drug and alcohol addicts as “disabled.”

States and local governments have been consistently rebuked by courts who say laws and ordinances that target these facilities discriminate against this class of people. Meanwhile, the facilities owned and operated by unscrupulous individuals laugh all the way to the bank with profits from a permanent, lucrative business funded by insurance company money in residential communities without accountability.

Add to that the harm inflicted on addicts. The operators of the facilities are shielding themselves with protections meant for their customers while the addicts may live in horrible conditions and don’t receive the care they are promised. The Government Accountability Office documented a significant amount of fraud committed by the operators of these facilities in several states while noting that studying the issue is difficult because of incomplete data. Most of these homes are unlicensed and thus their true number is unknown.

The presence of recovering drug addicts and alcoholics next door in and of itself is not the problem. The problem is that many of these individuals relapse, transforming the homes into transient motels that shelter these individuals for only weeks, if not days, at a time.

After which they often end up on the streets, weakening their prospect for recovery and further exacerbating the growing problem of homelessness in our county. Local government should have the right to address these concerns, but federal and state laws prevent them from doing so.

Housing is expensive and American families sacrifice a great deal when they purchase their home. They deserve the right to safeguard the character of their communities and local governments must be able to protect them from unscrupulous owners, operators, and inhabitants of sober living homes when those individuals disregard the well-being and wishes of the surrounding neighborhood.

Addicts who are legitimately trying to recover deserve to receive the care they earnestly seek in licensed facilities that exist in a location with the consent of local communities.

That is why I authored and introduced House Resolution 5724, the Restoring Community Oversight of Sober Living Homes Act of 2018. This legislation, if enacted, would narrowly amend the Fair Housing Act to define “recovery facility” in federal law.

Recovering addicts with traditional landlord-tenant arrangements would not be affected by my legislation. The bill would also repeal “substance use disorder” from the list of essential health benefits that were enacted in the so-called Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which will allow states and insurance companies another avenue by which to tackle the fraud being committed by so many operators of the facilities.

Congress is becoming increasingly aware of these problems, and I am happy to announce that the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice plans to conduct a public hearing on the issue on Sept. 14. Huntington Beach Mayor Pro Tempore Erik Peterson and I, among others, will testify at this hearing to highlight this serious problem for our communities.

We must implement a balanced approach. We applaud those who seek to defeat their addictions and cheer them on in their battle for sobriety. Let us ensure they are in a safe environment that is suitable to their recovery. We respect the rights of homeowners, who broadly sympathize with the addicts, to live in a community that is safe for their families and retains the character it had when they purchased their home.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) represents the 48th Congressional District of California.