Sober Houses spark heated discussion in St. Paul


“Who pays for these people?” asked a Merriam Park resident, who clearly wanted no sober houses on his block. Told that sober house residents must be self-sufficient, he shook his head in disbelief, clearly frustrated by this positive information. Facts, opinions and myths about sober houses generated lively discussion at a March 3 public hearing. The first of three public hearings on proposed St. Paul zoning restrictions on sober houses was held at the Martin Luther King Center in Saint Paul. 

A sober house is a home for persons in recovery from chemical dependency. Residents share common areas, such as kitchen and bathrooms. They do not receive any government payments and provide no supportive services to residents. They may set rules and conditions for residents, and generally can require residents who break the rules to leave immediately, without legal eviction processes.

St. Paul Planning Department proposal for city definition of sober houses:

A dwelling unit occupied by more than four (4) persons in recovery from chemical dependency and considered handicapped under the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988 that provides a non-institutional residential environment in which the residents willingly subject themselves to rules and conditions intended to encourage and sustain their recovery. The residents of a sober house are similar to a famly unit, share kitchen and bathroom facilities and other common areas of the unit. Sober houses are financially self-supporting; i.e. this
definition does not include facilities that receive operating revenue from governmental sources. Sober houses do not provide on-site supportive services to residents, as defined in section 321.01 of the Legislative Code other than basic informational referrals.

Some 60-70 people filled the room to overflowing and later arrivals stood around the perimeter.  About half of the community members in attendance are residents of sober houses in those communities. Newly-elected city council member Russ Stark and about fifteen city staffers and Planning Commission members attended.
Barbara Wencl, a member of the Planning Commission and chair of its Neighborhood Planning Committee for the Planning Commission, moderated the discussion.  Panelists representing three Saint Paul communities were:  Ryan Kapaun from District 5, the Payne Phalen neighborhood, Diane Gerth from the West 7th Neighborhood and Phil Gerlach from District 13, which includes Merriam Park, served as panelists, along with John Curtiss, the President of the MN Association of Sober Homes, and Dave Mott a current resident of a sober home. 

City Planner Luis Pereira gave a quick overview on the ordinance process to this point beginning with a request from the city council in 2005 requesting a study.  On February 13, a draft proposal was presented to the Zoning Committee.  Several neighborhood meetings had been held leading up to the draft and several public hearings are now on the calendar with plans for a final ordinance proposal to go to the Planning Commission this spring.      
A key legal issue is that people with a known chemical dependency are included as disabled in the Federal Fair Housing Act (FFHA) and thus receive all of its protections. Due to this inclusion, more unrelated individuals can legally reside in a sober house than would otherwise be permitted in a single family dwelling under the current zoning ordinances. 
Leana Shaff, an Inspector from the Saint Paul Fire Department spoke at length about inspections of sober homes in response to safety concerns. 

“All are subject to fire, building and property maintenance inspections and I have shut down three of them,” she said. “When I find out about a new one I am there within twenty-four hours.”
Parking, as any resident of Saint Paul will tell you, is always an issue.  The draft ordinance could limit the number of parking spaces required for sober homes. A similar issue is the concentration of the sober houses in a neighborhood, with the Planning Department proposing a “moderate” distance between them.
After statements by panel members, the meeting moved into observations, questions and issues from the audience.  As time and the evening wore on, the best-laid plans of the Planning Commission and the city staff gave way to the onslaught of, up until then, tightly capped emotions.  Several residents declared they would be moving due to this disruption of their community. 
John Curtiss said that Sober House residents were entitled to their constitutionally-protected privacy like any other citizen. 

One resident asked if the ordinance would be reviewed by the city attorney’s office to see if it was in violation of Supreme Court cases on similar situations.  The representative from the city attorney’s office avoided the question, stating that this was a meeting for residents and not for discussing legal issues.  Sober house residents countered that they were also community residents.      
All were in agreement that sober houses were better than college houses, however.  Even among Merriam Park residents, who were the most vociferous in objections to sober houses, there was division. 

”I am happy to have sober houses on my block” said resident Michelle Voychek, going on to describe neighborhood barbecues and other outreach among the members of her block.
Further information on other public hearings on this issue can be found by contacting Luis Pereira at

Carrie Wasley splits her time between living in St. Paul while working for the state of Minnesota and residing in Kanabec County with her two dogs Ping and Pong, who give her sage advice on writing.