Ideas and Opinions
Rohrabacher Sober Living Homes Hearing Testimony
On September 28, 2018, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice conducted a hearing on the issue of sober living homes in residential communities. Congressman Rohrabacher testified before the committee to discuss the impact this has had on Orange County and our country. He also outlined the bill he introduced to address the problem: H.R. 5724, the Restoring Community Oversight of Sober Living Homes Act of 2018.
You may watch the hearing on the House Judiciary Committee Website, or read his testimony below:
Chairman King, Ranking Member Cohen, and members of the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice:
Thank you for holding this hearing. Before I begin, I will note that I have received testimony from dozens of my constituents about this issue and how it affects their lives. I ask that these statements be included in the hearing record. I also have letters from several city governments in my district on how they are affected by this problem and I ask that they too be included into the record.
As you are all are aware, our country is enduring a crippling opioid epidemic. Many of our fellow citizens of all ages and social statuses are painfully struggling, seeking ways to end their dependence on pills that have, all too often, legally flooded our towns, cities, and rural communities.
I come before you today to discuss the impact that this challenge has had on many suburban communities, including those in my district in Orange County, California. Our challenge is different than just salvaging the lives of our addicts. It seems alcoholics and drug addicts are being recruited throughout our country to seek recovery in the wonderful environment of our Southern California residential neighborhoods. Residential recovery facilities, more commonly known as sober living homes, have proliferated to the point that my home town of Costa Mesa has been labeled the “Rehab Riviera.”
Something is fundamentally wrong with this scenario. Our sober living homes are not actually homes, but businesses that operate out of single-family homes in residential neighborhoods zoned for families. There are no standards or criminal background checks for who can operate such a business. A significant number are run by unscrupulous owners and operators who willfully disregard the well-being of the addicts they are supposedly serving... this while simultaneously reducing the quality of life of the communities where they are located. Under normal circumstances, this problem could be addressed by local government, but in this case, federal law shields the bad actors with the protections meant for their clients.
Federal law designates recovering drug addicts and alcoholics as disabled. The Fair Housing Act protects them from discrimination in housing, and its protections have been extended to businesses serving them. This has had an unintended effect: states and local governments have been consistently rebuked by courts that say laws and ordinances that target these facilities discriminate against the people living in them. Meanwhile, crooked owners and operators laugh all the way to the bank. They operate for-profit businesses posing as housing providers for disable people, meaning drug addicts and alcoholics, who are being located in residential neighborhoods. All of this is happening without accountability or oversight. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office issued a report showing that insurance fraud is rampant among these facilities in states across our country. Tracking these recovery houses and the problems associated with them is impossible because unlicensed facilities are not registered, nor are they systematically inspected. In short, there is a distinct lack of local oversight and authority.
This situation has proven harmful to local residential communities and, yes, those who are trying to free themselves from drug or alcohol addictions. They are victims in more ways than one. Furthermore, the neighborhood impacts are often alarming. My constituents report increases in criminal activity, disturbances, emergency visits at all hours of the day and night, noise, filth, trash, and other issues around the homes. The occupants are transient and are sheltered for only weeks, if not days, at a time, having no commitment to the community. Too many addicts relapse, sometimes repeatedly, with illegally obtained drugs. After relapse, the individuals often have nowhere to go, ending up homeless on our streets. This system is designed to exploit people desperately needing help, and it’s unfair to require residential neighborhoods to bare the burden of of shoddy, unregulated recovery by reducing their quality of life and a decrease their home values.
Let’s do this right and balance the needs of communities and recovering addicts. This hearing is a good start. I will note that I have introduced legislation that I believe would fix this problem. H.R. 5724, the Restoring Community Oversight of Sober Living Homes Act be the first step. It would clarify that nothing in federal law protecting those with disabilities prohibits local governments from regulating or banning recovery facilities in residential zones. For that to work, the bill defines “recovery facility” in federal code. Then, those in residential zones are exempt from the definition of “dwelling” for purposes of protection under the Fair Housing Act. Furthermore, my bill would bar federal money from being given to homes that are not licensed by their communities. Lastly, it would remove the treatment of “substance use disorder” from the list of essential health benefits for purposes of insurance. Though that is a difficult provision for many of my colleagues, it would remove the unintended incentive for operators and treatment centers to encourage patients to relapse, gravely endangering their lives, in order to obtain lucrative, new insurance coverage.
I would appreciate the opportunity to work with this subcommittee on moving this bill forward, so we can provide local governments the tools to help communities and addicts so poorly served by the status quo. Thank you again for conducting this hearing. This complicated problem deserves our attention, and I appreciate your willingness to hear our case.