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'Sober houses' under legal review by city

Kenneth J. Cooper | 7/28/2009, 11:46 a.m.

The Roxbury development that has become Safe Haven Sober Houses started quietly enough a decade ago when a one-man real estate company based in Hull bought an undeveloped parcel on the eastern foot of Fort Hill.

That was about the last quiet moment. The ongoing saga has seen the project shift from single-family townhouses for sale to multiple-occupancy bedrooms for weekly rent sober houses.

Some neighbors and their elected representatives have criticized the development — in both its forms — as too dense. The original plan was to erect 22 modular townhouses on a little more than an acre and a half.

The courts have been kept busy with lawsuits, appeals and a criminal prosecution that the city is now pursuing against Safe Haven’s operators on charges of converting garages and basements into bedrooms without building permits. The permits the developers did have were issued in 2003 on a unanimous order from the State Building Code Appeals Board after the Boston Redevelopment Authority sat on the application for more than four years.

More than 100 tenants recovering from substance abuse live in 11 or 12 townhouses on Washington, Juniper and Guild streets, Safe Haven states in a recent court filing.

“The development went up as a condo development, not a sober house,” said City Councilor Chuck Turner when asked to distill his concerns about Safe Haven. “Another concern is the quality of services.”

Turner, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson and state Rep. Gloria Fox, in separate interviews, recited a litany of concerns: fatal overdoses on site, residents’ purchases at a liquor store a block away, serious sex offenders among the tenants and, as Wilkerson puts it, “such a high concentration” of recovering substance abusers.

Unlike residential treatment programs, sober houses by definition provide only housing — not services to help tenants move beyond their addiction. The staff is supposed to collect rents, assure safety and enforce rules, but is not charged with monitoring individual behavior. Support and peer pressure from other former addicts is supposed to keep residents on track.

Because they do not provide treatment, sober houses are not licensed or regulated by any level of government. They enjoy the protection of state and federal anti-discrimination laws, which define recovering substance abusers as disabled.

Some sober houses in other states, reacting to bad publicity or proposed regulation, have banded together to impose quality standards on themselves.

California has two such groups: the Sober Living Network, based in Santa Monica, and the statewide California Association of Addiction Recovery Resources (CAARR) in Sacramento.

The Banner asked the directors of both organizations, and Douglas Polcin, a national expert on sober houses, about the concerns cited about Safe Haven.

Though they disagreed on some points, all three characterized most of those concerns as worrisome and inconsistent with a well-managed sober house.

Overdoses

Sgt. Bruce Smith, a community services officer with the Boston Police Department’s Area B station, said at least three fatal overdoses have occurred at Safe Haven.

Told at least three fatal overdoses have occurred at Safe Haven, which opened last year, Polcin groaned and muttered: “No, no.”

Ken Schonlau, director of the Sober Living Network, said “it happens,” but could recall only one fatal overdose on the premises of its 320 member houses.

Susan Blacksher, director of CAARR, offhand could not cite even one among its 300 members, but said she has read of overdoses at non-member houses.

Roxbury has a number of residential treatment programs, Wilkerson notes, but she maintains that fatal drug overdoses at them are far less common than they have been at Safe Haven.

Both Polcin and Blacksher say locating a sober house close to a liquor store is not a sound practice.

“Something like that would be very concerning,” said Polcin, who is conducting a federally funded study of the effectiveness of sober houses. He is a scientist at the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, Calif., which is part of the nonprofit Public Health Institute.

Blacksher acknowledges some houses are near liquor stores, but calls that situation “a temptation to people who are newly sober.”

Schonlau said it doesn’t matter how close a liquor store is: “It’s not a big issue, because if they really want to drink, they’re willing to walk five blocks.”

Neighbors report seeing Safe Haven residents walk to the liquor store and return with purchases in bags — though these observers can’t know for sure what’s inside.

“People see beer bottles and liquor bottles on the lawn,” Turner said. “There have been syringes that people have seen” on the grounds.

Safe Haven’s rules prohibit the use of drugs and alcohol — standard at all sober houses — and mandate drug testing three times a week, according to the recent court filing.

“Any positive test results lead to immediate action taken by Safe Haven,” the document states, without saying what action is taken. Safe Haven also said it imposes an unspecified curfew.

As it is now, five Level 3 sex offenders — the most serious category — live at Safe Haven, all in one townhouse. The number can fluctuate week to week, but Smith said that earlier this year, as many as 13 sex offenders, Level 3 and Level 2, resided at Safe Haven at the same time. To fit its mission, they would have to also be recovering from substance abuse.

Both Turner and Wilkerson say they object to the concentration of sex offenders. In September, the Boston Herald quoted David Fromm, the Hull businessman who developed Safe Haven, as saying it would stop accepting sex offenders but would allow those already there to remain.

This week, a total of 26 Level 3 offenders are living or working in Roxbury, according to the state Sex Offender Registry Board.

The experts on quality sober houses had little to say about the presence of sex offenders. Blacksher wondered where Safe Haven finds its residents.

Overcrowding

The experts are unanimous in indicating that Safe Haven’s size and its practice of putting as many as four people into one room are troublesome.

In its court filing, Safe Haven said between one and four tenants occupy each bedroom. Four to a room, Polcin said, is “not the norm. Maybe you have two to a room, or if it’s three, it’s a huge room.”

Schonlau said some members of the Sober Living Network temporarily put four new tenants into one bedroom, if they are jobless and need time to find work, before moving them into what he called “more reasonable accommodations.”

He added: “If you overcrowd, people aren’t going to stay. You need people to stay long to stabilize your house.”

In a court filing, Safe Haven said it has housed more than 1,000 recovering addicts during its existence. The document was filed in U.S. District Court in September, about 17 months after Safe Haven filed incorporation papers in March 2006.

That and other filings came in a lawsuit Safe Haven filed in an attempt to block the City of Boston from requiring additional building permits. The legal complaint cites federal anti-discrimination laws that protect the disabled.

Blacksher said, “Oh, wow,” when told that Safe Haven has more than 100 residents at any one time who may sleep four to a room.

“My antenna goes up when I hear four to a room, and when they are converting space” into more bedrooms, she said. “There are a lot of sober houses that are just six beds because that flies below the radar screen. When you start getting much bigger than that, you start getting into problems.”

The number of people living at Safe Haven, Wilkerson said, represents “such a high concentration” of recovering substance abusers in one neighborhood.

The developers

The only staffers at Safe Haven identified in its court filing are David W. Perry, the resident “executive director/manager” and Fromm, who is called “a manager.”

Perry, a lawyer, is in recovery from substance abuse. He was convicted on federal charges of conspiracy to possess cocaine with intent to distribute, and admitted in court to abusing drugs for 15 years until November 2001, when he entered a residential drug treatment facility after his arrest, according to the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers.

He was sentenced to five years on probation, the board said in its summary of federal court documents, because of his “extraordinary rehabilitation,” “assistance to the government” and mentoring of recovering addicts.

The board suspended Perry’s license to practice law for three years, a period that ended in May. Before his suspension in 2004, Perry had represented Fromm as he developed the townhouses. According to the court filing, Perry owns one of the sober houses.

Fromm was the sole officer of Keith Realty when it purchased the land where Safe Haven sits for $110,000 in 1997. He co-owned a restaurant on Nantasket Beach in 1999. He is also the principal of Fromm Development, which put up the townhouses.

Reached by phone at Safe Haven, Fromm said Perry was the better person to interview because he has more experience helping people in recovery. Fromm also said Perry is often busy dropping off and picking up residents at courthouses around the state.

Fromm said Perry would return the Banner’s call. He did not, and did not respond to subsequent voice messages.

Safe Haven said in a court filing that it receives no government funding, and tenants pay $140 as an application fee and that much in rent each week. Safe Haven said it houses more than 100 individuals, so the total collected each month exceeds $56,000 — if all are paying the full amount.

Like Safe Haven, most sober houses are run by for-profit enterprises, Polcin said. Both he and Blacksher also said the primary motivation matters — whether the businesses are trying to make big profits, or fill the social need of recovering addicts.

The tenants

Where the Safe Haven finds tenants is unclear.

Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state Executive Office of Public Safety, said last month that “parole officials were concerned with the way the facility was run so they pulled their people 16 months ago and haven’t sent anyone since that time.” No parolees currently reside there, he said.

Coria Holland, spokeswoman for the state commissioner of probation’s office, said any probationers living at Safe Haven were “self-referrals” who got there on their own.

“We are not aware of any probation officers referring offenders to Safe Haven Sober House,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Wilkerson said she had asked Commissioner of Probation John J. O’Brien in September to send a notice to courts and probation officers asking them to halt referrals, and he agreed to do so. Holland said O’Brien didn’t send such a letter.

Wilkerson was baffled by Holland’s statement that no referrals had ever been made.

“That’s crazy,” Wilkerson said. “How do you think these people from Agawam and Leominster find their way to Roxbury?”

Holland said Safe Haven is not listed in the manual of “community resources” that probation officers are supposed to use to make referrals to sober houses and other services. The reason: The manual was last updated in 2005, and Safe Haven opened a year later.

However residents get to Safe Haven, Wilkerson argues most appear to be misplaced in an unsupervised facility.

“They need structure, oversight, monitoring,” she said.

CAARR requires residents to have completed treatment or a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The Sober Living Network does not, insisting only that they be able to support themselves and be active in their own recovery program, Schonlau said.

Illegal bedrooms?

Safe Haven’s future is also unclear.

In Boston Housing Court, the city is prosecuting Fromm and Perry on charges of converting basements and garages into bedrooms without building permits. The city is also asserting that Safe Haven is a “rooming house.”

Safe Haven said designating it as a rooming house would mean it could no longer operate at its present location under the current zoning, leaving more than 100 tenants homeless. The city responds that the zoning doesn’t necessarily bar rooming houses.

In its court filing, Safe Haven also states the city’s Inspectional Services Department issued a “Certificate of Use and of Occupancy” last year for eight of the townhouses. The last two certificates were issued in November 2006.

For his part, Turner suggests Fromm opened Safe Haven last year because, with the housing market at a near standstill, he could not sell the townhouses. In 2004, the Herald quoted Fromm as saying several had been sold for more than $350,000.

Turner argues that out of fairness to the surrounding community, the rented ones should revert to the use that Fromm cited in his initial plans and public statements.

“From my perspective, the houses need to be sold as condos, not rented as sober houses,” Turner said.

Wilkerson said she does not have a problem with sober houses being in Roxbury, noting that the community has its share of substance abuse problems. Most residences for recovering addicts in Roxbury are small, she said, citing as an example one unit in a three-family house.

Sober houses exist in at least two-dozen communities in Massachusetts, according to the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency, which has funded some of them. In the Boston area, sober houses are located in Cambridge, Malden, Medford, Everett, Lynn, Scituate and other suburbs.

“In most places across the Commonwealth, it is working,” Wilkerson said.

Fox said local officials have complained about sober houses in Malden and Medford.

“Roxbury’s case is the worst. There are individual sober houses in those other places,” she said. “We’re the only ones with a campus.”

The controversy over Safe Haven has prompted the state Department of Public Health to ask sober houses to voluntarily register. Donna Rheaume, a department spokeswoman, said last week that six applications have been received since October and outreach will continue to attract more sober houses, which traditionally have resisted anything that approaches government licensing.

“Our goal is to protect the consumer,” Rheaume said. “We want to let consumers know what to look for.”

State Sen. Steven A. Tolman has filed legislation to mandate regulation of sober houses. The bill has cleared two committees and awaits action on the Senate floor.

Fox said she has turned over documents on Safe Haven to the office of state Attorney General Martha Coakley and requested an investigation of public health and safety issues there. Coakley’s office did not return telephone calls.

“Residential treatment programs is what we really need” in Roxbury, said Fox, who criticizes sober houses in general, equating them with rooming houses.

Safe Haven argues it is exempt from local zoning because of anti-discrimination laws. Wilkerson predicts no judge in Massachusetts will accept that argument. Rather, she anticipates that early next year the courts will hold Safe Haven to the zoning standard of no more than three unrelated persons per townhouse.

Because eight to 12 individuals occupy each townhouse, according to Safe Haven’s court filing, imposing that restriction would mean 63 percent to 75 percent of residents would have to move out.

If that happens, Wilkerson doubts Safe Haven can sustain itself financially.

“I think that the inevitability is that they will close,” she concludes.

Around the country, cities that have tried to regulate or shut down sober houses have almost always lost in the courts because the Fair Housing Act, Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal and state laws protect their disabled residents.

The city denies in its court filing that its aim is to shut Safe Haven, but said it instead seeks to protect the health and safety of residents there.

Liz Hoffman contributed to this report.