Tighter zoning controls to prevent the proliferation of unregulated “sober living homes” in Phoenix will come before the Ahwatukee Foothills Village Planning Committee Monday as it inches its way toward a final vote by City Council next month.
Although a recommendation by the committee for the controls’ approval is not required for their adoption, the panel last month gave indications the new rules will easily get an OK when it meets at 6 p.m. March 26 at Pecos Community Center.
City Councilman Sal DiCiccio pressed for the stricter regulations after Arcadia residents raised alarms about numerous sober living homes popping up in residential neighborhoods. These homes are not like licensed clinics and often provide no services or medical staff to their residents, he found.
In addition to zoning regulations aimed at keeping these homes from infesting a neighborhood, the Council also will be considering tough licensing requirements that would make it more difficult for these operations to simply provide a bed and collect thousands of dollars from government agencies and private insurers for so-called treatment of addictions.
The new rules were fashioned in part with the help of nonprofits, such as the Salvation Army, that run legitimate treatment programs for addicts, DiCiccio said.
The full extent of the problems that sober living homes are creating for homeowners was laid out at last month’s planning committee by Linda Colino, an Arcadia resident who helped organize residents to push for more city controls because the State Legislature only now is taking some small steps toward regulating the facilities.
“We’re not trying to stop sober living homes from going their good work, but there are some bad operators,” said Colino, part of an organization called Take Action Phoenix.
She found 13 houses within a quarter-mile of her neighborhood – and only four were licensed by the state.
Colino is no stranger to the sober living home scene. She said her son is a recovering addict and she spent $26,000 to have him treated in a sober living home, only to see him discharged “with no exit plan.”
“All they wanted was more money,” she said.
Spurred by lucrative federal government subsidies and medical insurance plans that do not require rigid treatment programs, the sober living homes have become a major problem in many parts of the state and nation.
People have complained that the addicts and alcoholics who sleep there wander around their neighborhood and loiter outside all day and night because the group homes provide them with no programs and sometimes not even meals.
Exacerbating the threat to quiet residential neighborhoods are sex offenders who also end up in the recovery homes. They are not required to notify authorities they are living there because it’s temporary.
DiCiccio said government and insurers’ payments for treatment are pocketed by the owners, who can earn as much as $5,000 a month per resident.
As recently as two years ago, Prescott, with a population of 40,000, had more than 150 sober living homes, with new ones opening up frequently.
When Prescott officials asked the State Legislature to impose stricter controls on the homes’ operation, lawmakers were unwilling to impose state oversight.
Instead, they gave cities and counties the option to impose registration conditions. Prescott did that – and has cut the number of homes down to about 50.
“The bad actors in this industry decided to move on,’’ Rep. Noel Campbell, R-Prescott, last month told fellow members of the State House, which has given preliminary approval to tighter regulations.
Those new rules, however, would not take effect for two more years if they are given final approval by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor.
As of now, no barriers exist to prevent these homes from setting up shop wherever operators want them.
Colino said her research showed that high-end neighborhoods are no less immune to their proliferation than lower-income communities because they just as easily occupy $400,000 houses as they do homes priced at less than a quarter of that.
“A $750,000 house is just as attractive to these operators as a shack,” Colino said.
The proposed zoning regulations would permit no more than five facilities with 10 or fewer residents within a half-mile radius, and they must be at least a quarter-mile apart from each other.
In addition, no more than one house would be able to exist on the same block nor abut each other from the rear. They also would be required to provide sufficient parking on the premises.
City Council also will be adopting licensing requirements for both the facilities and their managers that would include certain qualifications, such as training, education and certifications, criminal background checks, a home’s floor plans and an annual license and inspection.
“We totally support the ordinance,” Colino told the planning committee. “This is our cornerstone. We’ve got to have this.”
All Phoenix village planning committees are being asked to make a recommendation on the regulations before the city Planning Commission meets early next month.
The measures then go before City Council on April 18.
If approved, the measures would be among the strictest – and possibly the strictest – in the nation.
And they would go in effect two years before the state regulations. “Anyone who passes our licensing requirements would be expedited for the state license,” said Sam Stone, DiCiccio’s chief of staff.
One of the requirements is directly related to Colino’s experience with her son. An exit plan would be required for any patient who was being discharged.
“They can’t just put a patient out on the street when the money runs out,” Stone said. “We’re really breaking new ground here because we worked with the people who are good operators.”
Stone said city officials interviewed neighbors who live next to reputable addiction treatment centers in Phoenix and that those homeowners lauded their operations.