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Cities protect vulnerable residents, regulate 'sober homes'

​The rise in opioid abuse and the effects it has had on South Carolina residents over the last several years is well known. Municipal public safety officials across the state encounter the problems associated with addiction every day. However, progress is being made in helping people fight their addiction and return to a normal life.

Sober living houses, or sober homes and recovery support residences, are group homes where former addicts receive support from peers in a stable, substance-free environment to help them move back into mainstream society. Operated by nonprofit and for-profit organizations, sober homes are established to help mitigate the effects of addiction in our state.

Residents of cities and towns all across South Carolina take steps toward independence in these special residences. The houses are not required to be licensed by the state, though some operate under contract with the SC Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services. However, issues that arise with a sober home typically fall within the purview of municipal officials. It is important that local officials understand what they can and cannot do to regulate the residences.

"The role that municipalities play in supporting the integration of recovery support residences in the community is crucial, whether it is establishing and maintaining communication, educating residence operators about relevant codes and regulations, or assisting in efforts to reduce the stigma and fear associated with having a recovery support residence in a local community," said Julie Cole of DAODAS.

"Open communication and equitable application of existing regulations seem to play a large part in the successful integration of these residences."

Drug or alcohol addiction is considered an impairment under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and people with addiction are protected by it and other federal laws, including the Fair Housing Amendments Act. Together these federal laws prohibit discrimination against people with addiction, including efforts to prohibit sober homes from locating within a city.

Federal case law on the regulation of sober homes has been inconsistent. In some cases, federal courts have ruled that sober homes must adhere to established zoning regulations. However, other courts have ruled those zoning ordinances must include accommodations for people with disabilities.

The protections for people with disabilities make sober homes different from other group homes, a distinction that can cause confusion.

For instance, some courts have ruled a town’s zoning ordinance may limit the number of unrelated individuals who can live in a single family residence—a restriction that also extends to sober homes. In other cases, however, courts have ruled such limitations are illegal if they make no exceptions for people with disabilities. Similarly, courts have ruled inconsistently on distance requirements and change in occupancy restrictions. Therefore, attempts to restrict where sober homes may locate in a city should be carefully considered and done in consultation with legal experts.

Neighbors concerned about activity in sober homes often contact local officials with questions. Issues related to parking, increased activity on the street and, in some cases, petty crime are sometimes associated with recovery support residences. So, it’s important that municipal officials reach out to residence operators and establish a relationship with them. Communication among the city, the sober home operators and neighbors is a key component to ensuring issues are addressed quickly.

People with addiction face many obstacles to getting clean and re-entering society. Sober homes play a role in helping residents resume a productive life. Cities and towns facilitate that process by helping to ensure the residences operate within state law and local ordinances.