After two years of meetings with the community, the recovery industry, and politicians, Phoenix last year became the first city in the Valley to license sober-living homes.
But more than six months later, only six sober-living homes and nine home managers are licensed. While some residents allege many owners are ignoring the licensing requirement, the city says few residents are actually reporting possible violators.
There is no state registry of sober-living homes, so the city relies on residents to submit complaints if they believe there’s an unlicensed home operating in their neighborhood.
“Our complaints are quite a bit lower than we expected after hearing so much testimony of what was seen as a proliferation,” said Bob Lozier, deputy director of the city’s Neighborhood Services Department.
The city had planned to hire four inspectors for the perceived “proliferation,” but it’s only filled two of the positions because of the lack of complaints, Lozier said.
Some community members are pushing the city to stop waiting for complaints and instead proactively find sober-living homes and demand they get licensed.
They’re also trying to educate neighborhoods to look for the signs of a sober-living home and report them to the city.
The licensing process that the Phoenix City Council approved last year applies only to “structured sober-living homes.”
This narrow category only includes facilities that provide drug and alcohol-free housing and structured programming for individuals receiving outpatient behavioral health treatment for addiction.
Unstructured sober-living homes offer housing, but no on-site services.
A structured sober-living home license costs $1,500 annually and requires annual inspections by the city to ensure health and safety standards for the residents.
Managers of these facilities must also get licensed and background checked by the city. Their licenses cost $200, with a $40 annual renewal fee.
Although only structured sober-living homes must be licensed, all group homes — including unstructured sober-living homes and those that provide housing for people with physical or cognitive disabilities — must register with the city’s planning department.
The intent is to prevent the clustering of group homes in a neighborhood. A group home must be 1,320 feet from another group home.
Complaints are low
The city anticipated a “big, bell-shaped curve” with a plethora of complaints coming in right away and then slowly dissipating as homes got licensed, Lozier said. Instead, it’s been a trickle.
When people do submit complaint, more often than not, the group homes don’t fall into the city’s definition of a structured sober-living home, he said.
When the city receives a complaint, an inspector will visit the property and try to determine whether it meets the city’s definition, Lozier said.
Since July, the city has received 40 complaints, but only six required licensing under the city’s standards. One other stopped offering “structured” services to avoid licensing and another stopped operating altogether, he said.
Neighbors: City should be proactive
Linda Colino, an active neighborhood leader in northwest Central Phoenix, was one of the first people to bring her concerns about group homes to Phoenix.
She’s determined through property records that there are more than a dozen group homes within a quarter mile of her neighborhood. She joined other neighborhood leaders across the city to form a group called Take Action Phoenix.
The group was part of the committee that helped shape the licensing the council ultimately approved. She said representatives from the industry were part of the conversations, so they should know that they’re required to get licensed.
They’re choosing not to, she said.
“They know full well because they were at the table. They were on the committee,” Colino said.
She wants the city to actively pursue unlicensed homes instead of waiting for complaints. She’s made a database of suspected unlicensed sober-living homes, based on internet advertisements and her observations. She turned her findings over to the city earlier this year.
“Sometimes you have to use the old cattle prod,” Colino said.
See something, say something
Take Action Phoenix is also trying to educate the public on how to identify sober-living homes. They provided the following signs of a possible group home:
- Traffic issues, including a high volume of cars coming and going from the house.
- Parking issues, including a high number of cars parked on the street or in the front yards/driveways of a house.
- Many people going to and from the house on foot or bicycle.
- Loitering, trespassing or congregating in unauthorized areas.
- Disruptive noise coming from the property.
- Property maintenance issues, including trash, garbage, weeds or lack of yard maintenance.
“The big challenge is nobody really knows where they’re at,” said Jeff Spellman, one of the original members of Take Action Phoenix.
Jeff Taylor of the Arizona Recovery Housing Association, said that for some group home owners, there’s still a “fear factor.”
He said some owners are worried that they’ll be pushed out of neighborhoods if they come forward and register their location.
But, Taylor said the city has set up a committee to provide “reasonable accommodations” for sober-living homes if, for example, they are located within 1,320 feet of another group home.
Taylor is a member of the five-person committee. He said the group has been fair in providing reasonable exceptions for group homes.
Taylor said he believes that once more people in the industry are educated about the city’s licensing process, they’ll be more comfortable getting licensed.
He said all Arizona Recovery Housing Association members are encouraged at each meeting to get licensed with Phoenix.
State licensing on the way
Last year, the Arizona Legislature approved statewide licensing for sober-living homes.
It’s expected to take effect in the next two years. When it does, there likely will no longer be a need for city licensing.
“What you want is consistency across the state for all neighborhoods to be protected. State regulation will help with that a lot,” Spellman said.
However, the city will continue to monitor group home locations through its planning department to continue to prevent the clustering of homes in one neighborhood, Lozier said.
Spellman said his group understands the need for sober-living homes — but they want to ensure they’re regulated so the residents and neighbors are safe.
“There’a right for them to be here and a reason for them to be in neighborhoods where they can assimilate,” Spellman said. “It’s never about trying to get rid of them; it’s about trying to make sure they’re not clustered and they’re following health and safety guidelines.”
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