Patricia and Kane Black bought a bungalow built in 1923 near downtown Mesa, spurning cookie-cutter suburban housing while choosing to raise their small children in a historic district.
Michael Harris of Ahwatukee looked at the same neighborhood as the perfect place to open a transitional-living house, to help drug offenders such as himself stay clean after their release from prison. He viewed access to light rail, Maricopa County Adult Probation and the Mesa Public Library as attributes. It also is near Community Bridges addiction treatment center, where he works.
But the biggest attribute of all for Harris was that all he had to do was have fewer than six residents to avoid Mesa’s zoning requirements. He considered another building in Phoenix but abandoned the idea after the city imposed a stringent licensing law on group homes.
“We almost bought a four-plex in Phoenix for more money, but the city of Phoenix has adopted some pretty challenging regulations for something I am trying to start,’’ Harris said.
He said the residents are being carefully selected, knowing that their failure would damage his new program at a time when he is trying to build credibility within the neighborhood.
“It’s uber-accountability. It’s our manifesto, take it or leave it,’’ he said.
The problem is that the Black family’s bungalow and Harris’ transitional-housing facility are right next to each other on Pomeroy Street in the Glenwood Wilbur historic district, behind a Mesa fire station near First Street and Mesa Drive.
It has created a conflict that spilled over to the Mesa City Council last week.
Now, Mesa is poised to catch up with regulations passed by other cities aimed at group homes.
Complaints from residents such as the Blacks preceded the Mesa City Council study session, where there was a consensus to pass regulations similar to Prescott’s sober living home ordinance – which is less stringent than the one Phoenix has adopted.
The Prescott ordinance also is similar to a bill passed this session by the state Legislature, though that won’t take effect for two years.
Prescott and all Arizona cities got the go-ahead last year to craft their own legislation after sober-living homes were being set up at an astonishing rate. The same thing happened in Phoenix.
Neighborhood activists in Phoenix said the homes were unsupervised and offered no treatment programs but made significant revenue from government and private insurance payments.
Moreover, with no zoning regulations to control their location, Phoenix officials found that five or six homes were setting up in one neighborhood.
Phoenix took a two-pronged approach, using new zoning laws to regulate the number and locations of the homes. Simultaneously, the city imposed tough new licensing requirements governing their operation, such as requiring on-site supervision at all times and a plan for every resident upon discharge.
Mesa City Attorney Jim Smith said he plans to mimic the Prescott law because it has been in effect for a year and has not exposed Prescott to lawsuits. It is unclear if Harris’ Valjean Society facility would be covered by the new ordinance, which is scheduled for introduction at the July 2 council meeting.
But the Prescott law would appear to pose a couple of issues for the Valjean facility. Prescott requires that a house manager supervise the facility at all times and limits the facilities to sober-living homes where residents are enrolled in drug and alcohol programs. It also imposes restrictions on the types of residents.
“The home will not admit persons who pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others such as persons on the sex offender registry or prison pre-parolee,’’ the Prescott ordinance states.
Harris said he would probably be on the premises 50 percent of the time, but he may have to hire other qualified people to be there when he is not available. He said the men living at the house will have been released from prison and most of them will probably be on probation.
The Blacks see that as a threat to their quality of life.
“It’s a concern about an investment in a home,’’ Patricia Black told the council. “I don’t want to give up on Mesa and move my family away.’’
She said the couple rejected the advice of a Realtor when they bought their house in downtown Mesa.
“We were trying to fight the stigma of Mesa, the negative stereotypes,’’ said Kane Black. “I don’t believe this is an appropriate place for a sober-living home.’’
Although the Blacks welcome Mesa’s move to adopt a regulation similar to Prescott’s, they said after the meeting that they are looking at other options for their family after hearing Harris describe his intentions to help five drug offenders stay clean and to reintegrate them into society.
“At this point, anything that would help monitor them, keep them under control, would be welcome,’’ Patricia said, adding that she is concerned Harris will not live there full time. “There seems to be no monitoring whatsoever.’’
Mayor John Giles told the Blacks and other historic district residents not to overreact, with downtown Mesa on the brink of a resurgence because of several large redevelopment projects. He said the city is pursuing a large residential development on the vacant Site 17, only a block away from their neighborhood.
“If you are a little bit discouraged right now, please hang on,’’ Giles said. “There are great things ahead.’’
He said Mesa is joining with Prescott and Phoenix in regulating the transitional homes and that he plans to adopt a resolution through the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, asking the state Department of Health Services to develop regulations for such homes much sooner than the two years allowed by the law passed this year in the Legislature.
The Legislature was reluctant last year to adopt any regulations, but sympathized with communities, like Prescott, that were seeing huge spikes in sober-living homes.
“We are anxious to be engaged in this issue and to provide all the protection we can, but at the same time, be respectful to people,’’ Giles said, by not violating the federal Fair Housing Act. “I think we are leading in this area.’’
Janice Gennevois, a historic preservation activist, wasn’t sure of that, saying during the meeting that other cities erect more barriers through zoning and licensing than Mesa.
“It’s really cheap and easy to come to Mesa. That’s where they are going to come,’’ she said.
In Phoenix, activists told city planning officials that the potential income was so lucrative for sober-living home operators that no home is out of their price range – even those on the market for as much as $750,000.
Harris said he wants neighbors to give him an opportunity to prove himself. He said the project got off to a difficult start when the Valjean Society bought the house, not knowing the longtime tenant was unaware that it was even for sale. He gave the angry tenant a free month’s rent and one month longer to move out, on July 1.
“We don’t want to be in an area saturated by criminality. We want to create a sanctuary for them,’’ he said, referring to the men 25 to 35 years old with a history of low-level drug arrests. “I have spent six months working with them before they even get out.’’
He said the men realize the program will be rigorous, with requirements to attend alcohol and drug counseling, mandatory drug testing, a curfew and a camera system that will watch their behavior.
“These people have not hurt anybody. If anything, they have hurt themselves,’’ Harris said. “Our society is so plagued with the opiate epidemic. Everyone in that neighborhood knows someone who has been impacted by the opiate epidemic.’’
Harris said he works long shifts at Community Bridges three days a week and will be at the transitional-living home before and after work and on his days off. He added that he has been sober for six years and has been out of prison for 3½ years. He lives with his wife and three daughters in Ahwatukee.
“I understand there are fears and stigmas,’’ Harris said. “Society doesn’t want people to go back. We want people to recover.’’
The Blacks say sober-living homes are necessary, but they are not sure they want their children so close to one. Patricia Black said she understands downtown Mesa’s potential, but the transitional home scares her.
“I have to be skeptical,’’ she said. “I don’t know if we can stick around for that.’'