Sobriety Check

Neighbors turn to St. Paul City Council to provide more oversight on sober homes

As a teenager, Kevin was never too keen on booze. Watching his peers stagger through their adolescence in a drunken stupor left him baffled. Why waste your time with the hooch, what with all the wonderful street drugs out there? Coke and crack—now those provided some serious kicks.

Kevin's chemical thrill-seeking eventually landed him in a 28-day recovery program in 1989. He emerged from treatment on his 20th birthday totally clean, but just six months later he was back at it again—this time opting for the bottle. He'd gulp down a 1.75-liter handle of vodka before nightfall, and he'd often black out for days on end.

With nothing to lose, he decided to try something different: a sober house.

"The last place I wanted to be on the face of the earth was a Christian sober house," says Kevin, who asked that his last name not be given. "But I figured if I went against my instinct something good would come of it. And it did. Moving in gave me a reason not to drink. We support one another and keep each other in check. Coming here saved my life."

Like more than 50 other sober houses throughout St. Paul, this split-level home in the Battle Creek neighborhood provides a safe segue for recovering addicts making the transition from treatment centers to the community. Democratically run and self-financed, these houses expel any member caught with booze or drugs.

Because they do not receive government assistance, no public agency oversees their operation, which has neighbors worried. Retirees Bruce and Carol Kuettner have lived in their blue two-story on Ashland Avenue in the Summit-University neighborhood for 19 years. About four years ago, a sober house opened up next door. A wiry man with a surly demeanor, Bruce has been an outspoken critic ever since.

"They make their own rules," he says, motioning to the window from his kitchen table. "No one investigates them. There's no accountability for the landlords. Everybody's saying we're picking on these individuals. No, we aren't. We're just saying there needs to be accountability."

A few houses down, on the corner of Ashland and Lexington Parkway, Georgia Haggerty echoes these concerns.

"The main problem is the parking issue," she says, glancing down the street. "There's no limit on how many people can live there. Also, there's a lot of turnover. We've lived here a long time and we'd like it to stay a neighborhood. It seems our neighborhood has become a mecca for group homes."

The parking problems and congestion stem from the fact that sober houses are exempt from single-family zoning requirements, which means they can house more than four unrelated people. This immunity comes from a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found that the Fair Housing Act protects addicts from rental discrimination.

Even so, the St. Paul City Council has launched a study to find ways around this regulatory roadblock, and on September 12 passed a moratorium prohibiting sober houses from sprouting within the city for one year.

"We're looking for a solution that is as fair to both sides as possible, and this will buy us some time," says St. Paul Council member Jay Benanav, who introduced the resolution. "Once we get a legal definition of 'sober house' on the books, we'll have a bit more leeway in regulating them."

Proponents of sober houses question the legality of the moratorium. At a public hearing held last Wednesday in City Hall, Fabian Huffner, an attorney representing St. Paul Sober Living, pointed out that many cities throughout the country have tried to implement regulations on sober homes, only to see them struck down in court.

In 2002, for example, Boca Raton, Florida, passed an ordinance that effectively banned sober houses from residential areas and prohibited creating two sober houses within 1,000 feet of each other. The ACLU subsequently sued the city for discrimination and the city had to pay out more than $600,000 to sober-house operators.

"These people have the same right to live in single-family zones as anyone else," Huffner says. "This moratorium is just a way of placating the residents. Looking at federal law, I don't believe the city has the authority to do this."

Back in Battle Creek, Kevin remains optimistic. "The moratorium or any ordinance won't affect standing sober houses, so it doesn't change things for me personally," he says. "But without this house, I never would have had the opportunity to meet these guys and turn my life around." 

 
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