VOICES Sober houses


Last week, the City of St Paul took a step toward rational land use policy when it passed modest regulations designed to get a handle on the locations of sober houses within the City, to determine whether the exemptions from local laws that they claim are deserved, and to prevent the clustering of many such houses on a single block. I worked to help pass that measure, and here’s why.

I stood in front of the city council last September, and asked them to pass a moratorium on new sober houses in St Paul. For 10 months, our task force respectfully researched and compromised toward a thoughtful, legal ordinance that protects the rights of the residents of the sober houses, the owners and operators, and the neighbors who share the city. We all recognize the importance of sober houses, and emphatically agree that they save lives. But unlike almost every other kind of business, the sober house owners and operators seem to feel that they are above the need for any kind of regulation. We thank the City Council for recognizing that sober house regulation is necessary to protect the safety and rights of sober house residents and at the same time, to preserve the residential character of our great neighborhoods.

What does the ordinance say?

The sober house ordinance defines a sober house and a set of standards and conditions that a potential sober house owner must meet to be granted sober house status. These conditions include a written plan submitted to the City, a Certificate of Occupancy from the Fire Department, a parking plan, and a modest distance separation where no sober house shall be located closer than 330 ft. to another sober house. The ordinance also provides a reasonable accommodation process for potential sober house owners, should the potential sober house owner feel there is a need to be granted additional relief from this and/or other zoning requirements.

Recently, a tattoo shop owner in St Paul wanted to clean up his industry’s reputation, and so was actively working with the City of St Paul to regulate tattoo parlours. He was concerned about the number of unscrupulous businesspersons in his field, and felt strongly that regulation would secure the safety of their clients. Sure, they could have all agreed to self regulate, but it was clear to him that all it takes is a couple of unsavory businesspeople to hurt the entire industry. If someone I loved was going to get a tattoo, I’d suggest they go there. If someone I loved was recovering, and looking for a sober house to move into, I would hope that somewhere I could find one where the owner supported regulation. We find it amazing that the sober house lawyers, owners and operators oppose even modest regulation and standards, when so many lives are at stake and possibly in the hands of less than upstanding sober house owners. We wonder how the Minnesota Assoc of Sober Houses (“MASH”) will self-regulate the sober houses that are floating under the radar, as they work hand in hand with the Dept of Fire & Inspection, who also has no idea where these sober houses are or how many are out there.

I’d like to briefly address the 330-foot dispersal limit, which was really the only bit of regulation left in the ordinance. Tenants who rent rooms in sober houses benefit from this, because it ensures that their homes will be in residential neighborhoods, not on a street surrounded by other transitional, institutional homes. The 330-foot limit also benefits the neighbors, as we try to preserve the same residential environment. It keeps the neighborhoods residential (versus institutional or commercial) by avoiding clustering of high-density housing which increases late night noise, high volume traffic, and parking problems and overly burdens governmental services. Maybe the sober house owners don’t support the dispersal limit because it isn’t as convenient to have to go more than one city block to check how their self-regulation is going. Or maybe because if you can’t put three or four sober houses on one block, you can’t make three or four times more money. I just know that if the sober house model is to integrate people in recovery into residential neighborhoods, then one would think a moderate dispersal limit would be welcomed by everyone. At least, by everyone who isn’t looking to make as much money as possible, at the expense of the quality of life of those they claim to serve. The 330-foot limits operators to approximately one sober house per city block in St Paul, opening the door to thousands of them within city limits … is that really a crisis for sober housing?

We hear over and over about how so few police calls are made to the sober houses. No, we don’t call when 11 people live in a house that used to be zoned for four, and the house and car doors slam that many times more all night. We don’t call when tenants talk on cell phones in the front yard at 2 a.m. because the other five people who live in the basement would prefer they didn’t do it indoors. No, we don’t call when the ten cars parked on the street by people who live at that address prevent us from parking on our block. No, we aren’t going to call the police over that kind of thing, but you cannot deny that it doesn’t impact the quality of life in our neighborhood.

Because of the transitional nature of these houses, there are constantly people moving in and out. Tenants who stay in a home for a week or two have no vested interest in the neighborhood. They have little if any interaction with the homeowners they share the area with; there’s no denying that changes the character of a community.

At the same time, we resent that the media keeps bringing up parking and noise as the main issues for our desire to regulate sober houses. A solid definition (previously, the city had NO working definition of sober houses) is now in place, as well as a Reasonable Accommodation procedure. The city will have the ability to follow up with sober house owners, to make sure they are operating under the new definition, and not just running a transitional boarding house with sober house zoning benefits. The Department of Safety and Inspections will also be able to make sure the houses are not violating codes as they fly under the radar. (See Diane Gerth’s comments from the E-Democracy site.)

We’ve heard all the buzzwords on this issue: that it’s illegal to try to regulate sober homes, that it’s discriminatory. To quote a letter to the Council from MASH’s attorney, Mr. David Lillehaug, we are attacking the most peaceful of all of St Paul’s residents, the sober people living in sober houses. We have been clear from the beginning that this has nothing to do with the recovery process, or who the people are in the homes. It has everything to do with the number of people, IN the number of houses, ON the number of blocks, filled with the number of cars. It’s a land use issue, not a discrimination issue. We’ve heard and read the threats made by legal counsel representing the sober houses; sadly, they have had a chilling effect on how city staff and the Planning Commission have addressed this issue. The Pioneer Press ran an editorial saying the Planning Commission “did the right thing” by taking out the 330-foot dispersal limit. It seems highly likely that this “right thing” was based on fear created by Mr. Lillehaug’s threat to sue personally certain members of Planning Commission committees for punitive damages. Most of these people are volunteers, looking after our city!

Fortunately, the City Council thoughtfully considered what is reasonable to protect sober house residents’ rights and safety while preserving the residential character of the neighborhoods and then did the right thing for everyone.

The authors have been working on sober house zoning issues in St. Paul.