Changing the Standards in Recovery Housing
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a recovering addict is classified as a person with a disability. Under the Federal Fair Housing Act, persons with disabilities must be given reasonable accommodation to live together as a family without discrimination. If a state does not comply with the Federal Fair Housing Act, the law requires the state to reach an accommodation for Recovery Housing on a case-by-case basis. In NJ, the only model for recovery housing has been the Oxford Houses; all others are classified as Boarding Homes and are subject to zoning regulations. This has been the grueling fight of the Hansen Foundation with the Division of Community Affairs in the State of New Jersey for the last eight years!
Jennifer Hansen encountered the problem first in Absecon where she already had the approval from the Atlantic County Improvement Authority for a grant to purchase a house for sober living, but still needed the Atlantic County Freeholders to sign off on it. Although the latter did not happen and the grant was pulled due to NIMBY (not in my back yard), the first Serenity House for Women opened with 10 beds in 2007. A second house opened in Pleasantville, Serenity Meadows, with 11 beds in 2008… many lives were changed and women became grateful model citizens. It was in 2012 when a third house opened, the Randy Scarborough House for Men, that problems with the State of NJ began when a NIMBY neighbor complained to the state and we were visited by a DCA inspector. He said that we had a well-run house, better than any he had seen, but he declared that we were running a “Boarding House” without a license. If we wanted to say we would be an Oxford House, he would go away and not bother us. So why not an Oxford House? Hansen Foundation wanted to MANAGE the house and provide much needed support for those new in recovery…teaching life skills, direction, providing transportation, advocating for court dates, writing resumes, getting a job…all the things you would need in a safe affordable environment to get yourself on your feet. Oxford Houses do none of this. They are democratically run and do not allow for any of the national best practices and policies that were already implemented and working not only in our Serenity Houses, but in many states across the country.
After receiving a hefty fine (that continues to grow), we had the dilemma: a legal battle or submission? For the good of those in recovery, we chose the legal battle. It is now eight years, we are ten Serenity Houses and we have been in and out of federal and state courts (the state keeps changing attorneys) and the DCA refuses to talk with us “because we are in litigation”. The fines have been stayed at the moment at $560,000!
Of course, seeing that this wasn’t going to be resolved soon, Jennifer approached our local Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armada to sponsor a bill which would authorize a credentialing body to certify recovery residences which operated under the best practices and guidelines of NARR (National Association of Recovery Residences. That bill unanimously passed the Assembly last year and was promised to be passed by the Senate until Governor Murphy said he wouldn’t sign it at the last minute. The bill was pulled and we are now starting again.
It shouldn’t be this hard to help people when we are so clearly doing the right thing. In 2018, the State of New Jersey created a new level of “boarding house” called the “Class F License” specifically for Recovery Houses. Instead of implementing any of the recommendations of the Recovery providers, a bricks and mortar bill was created that does nothing to guarantee that “Best Practices” are being employed.
Bottom line, the state does not have anything in legislation that protects residences from unethical practices nor proactively governs recovery residences with legal standards and guidelines. Recovery residences can either provide a runway to sustained recovery or lead to relapse and possibly death for residents. The Hansen Foundation is fighting to change current legislation to ensure all recoverees in sober living are protected