DELRAY BEACH — Delray Beach is getting tougher on sober homes by taking regulation measures that are unprecedented in the state.
While the state of Florida asks sober homes to voluntarily certify with a nonprofit that requires them to meet business and housing standards, Delray Beach may take steps to force local recovery residences to certify or meet those standards, according to a recently released city report.
Daniel Lauber, a zoning legislation expert hired by the city to craft recommendations to regulate group housing prompted by the saturation of sober homes, detailed this initiative in a report recently released to the city.
“Palm Beach County is the poster child for how things can get perverted by a scam artist (in the recovery industry),” said Lauber, who is based in Illinois. “It’s critical to have standards in place that would protect residents from abuse and exploitation.”
Among Lauber’s key recommendations that come in the 57-page report:
- Limiting the number of group homes, the umbrella under which sober homes fall, allowed to one home per 660 feet, or one city block.
- The state gives sober homes the option of voluntarily certifying with the Florida Association of Recovery Residences. But Delray recovery residences would be required to either certify with the FARR or prove they meet those standards without certification.
The city intends to adopt Lauber’s recommendations, city attorney Max Lohman wrote in an email.
“By so protecting sober home residents from unscrupulous operators we will then be able to protect our neighbors, the surrounding neighbor, and citizens of the city,” Lohman wrote.
The report provides a detailed glimpse at the concentration of sober homes in Delray Beach, often referred to as the recovery capital of America.
There are 183 confirmed sober homes in the city, and 64 that are thought to be recovery residence but are flying under the radar, according to Lauber’s report.
It’s one of the highest concentrations Lauber has seen in his 20-plus years crafting sober home legislation, he said.
“It’s a little hard to see how a city of 66,000 can absorb so many of these homes into its social structure,” he said.
The highest density of community residences, the category under which sober homes fall, is in the city’s central business district, which includes areas downtown Delray Beach between Second Avenue and Federal Highway both north and south of Atlantic Avenue. There are as many as 30 homes in this sector, according to the report.
The clustering of sober homes in a small area, described in the report as a “de facto social service district,” can obstruct the normalization of its residents, a key to adequate recovery, Lauber notes in the report.
Delray Beach would likely be the first municipality in the state of Florida to adopt these regulations, the report states.
Lauber has crafted similar regulations in cities in other states.
“This is nothing new,” he said, adding that those regulations have withstood legal challenges.
Recovering addicts are protected by federal disability laws, and sober homes by federal housing laws, meaning municipalities have to tread lightly in regulating this protected class.
In Delray Beach, homes with more than three unrelated residents, known as group homes or community residences, must apply for “reasonable accommodation” that exempt them from local regulations. The city requires these group homes to certify each year.
Group homes other than sober homes are already regulated by five different state agencies, the report notes. Sober homes would now simply be held to those same standards.
Sober homes currently operating may be required to certify with FARR or meet those mentioned standards when they apply for reasonable accommodation the year after these regulations are adopted, Lauber said.
Jeffrey Lynne, a Delray Beach attorney who represents sober homes and treatment centers and sits on State Attorney Dave Aronberg’s Sober Home Task Force, supports the concept of requiring certification.
“In this case, certification would or should withstand any judicial scrutiny,” said Lynne, who read Lauber’s report. “I think there’s now sufficient evidence that shows there’s actually harm to the disabled class with lack of oversight or regulation.”
On the one sober home-per-block regulation, Lynne said studies haven’t been done on whether the of sober residences helps or hinders the recovery process.
“The key here is any regulations must benefit this protected class,” Lynne said. “I don’t know that that does benefit a protected class.”
The regulation likely won’t apply to homes that currently operate, Lauber said. But the city could theoretically deny reasonable accommodation if a home doesn’t meet required standards, thus weeding out the unscrupulous homes.
Said Lauber: “That would require them to operate in a legitimate manner.”