No welcome wagon for sober houses

Way stations for those battling addiction face growing opposition

IT”S BECOME INCREASINGLY popular to talk about addiction problems as a public health issue, with those suffering from the problem in need of help, not scorn or jail. Much less popular is the idea of that help being delivered next door. Especially when that means packing the programs into communities that feel they already do more than their share when it comes to dealing with the addiction crisis.

Across the state, “sober homes,” residential settings that provide temporary housing to those who have gone through treatment and are trying to get back on their feet, are facing pushback from municipal officials. Today’s Globe focuses on a showdown in Fitchburg, where Donald Flagg was told he must install a sprinkler system in a sober home he ran. When he moved the program to a new location in Fitchburg, a city inspector said he was operating a lodging home in the triple-decker, something the area was not zoned for. 

The issue is playing out in court, where operators of sober homes have asserted that state zoning law and the federal Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of discrimination against the disabled exempt their programs from the regulations local officials are looking to impose. 

Fitchburg’s building commissioner says Flagg actually runs a “a pretty tight ship,” but says other operators are just looking to exploit the business for a buck, while maintaining filthy homes with blocked fire exits and no smoke detectors. 

That underscores a big problem with sober homes: They are unregulated, with about 180 facilities statewide registered as part of a voluntary certification program, but many more operating outside of any oversight.

Richard Winant, the former head of a state association of sober homes, tells the Globe sprinkler systems can cost $30,000 to $50,000 per building. He said forcing that cost on operators would lead most to shut down. “People need to understand: If they all went away,” he said, “you better start building more jail cells.”

In Boston, problems from the concentration of drug addicts gathered in the area around Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass Blvd., where a lot of treatment facilities are based, have prompted calls for services to be more evenly distributed across the region. 

But when it comes to having communities share the burden of helping those dealing with addiction, small-scale sober homes seem to be as much a part of the problem as the solution. 

State Rep. Liz Miranda, whose Roxbury-based district abuts Mass. Ave. and Melnea Cass, said recently on the Codcast that the neighborhoods surrounding the troubled area are already  saturated with such services. “We have a prison, we have a biolab, we have multiple methadone clinics, we have a hospital, we have multiple shelters, we have multiple sober homes, some that are registered with the Commonwealth, some that are not — all concentrated in a community that’s already struggling, a working class, poor community,” said Miranda. “What’s a fair share?” 

The Meetinghouse Hill area of Dorchester that she represents has been at the center of a controversy involving a businessman who operates several sober homes in the neighborhood and has been looking to open another.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Of the 180 certified sober homes across the state, nearly 10 percent of them (17) are  in Dorchester. 

“Why is it only happening to the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury?” longtime Meetinghouse Hill resident Lisa Villaroel asked in a February story by the Dorchester Reporter and WBUR. “How come we don’t see them happening in Milton?”