Huntington has 60 drug addiction recovery houses within its city limits. That’s how many city officials know of. It is also about one-third the total number of certifiable recovery houses in all of West Virginia.
City officials say they need more authority to certify and regulate such houses. The growth of the industry has led to a disaster that’s waiting to happen, they say.
Three city officials raised this issue last week to the Legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Health: Mayor Steve Williams; Jan Rader, director of the Mayor’s Council on Public Health and Drug Control Policy; and Mat Winters, city fire marshal.
“Life moves faster than policy,” Rader said. “Now that we are trying to (fix) that and give them a path, a lot of them do not want to comply.”
Rader noted an April 7, 2020, fire at a single-family house in Huntington being used as a sober living home. The fire was in the walls near a door frame, which was the only exit for six women living on the second floor.
“This electrical issue that caused the fire could have been found on a simple inspection by your building code and fire marshal,” Rader told legislators. “There were no working smoke detectors in the home, either.”
In 2020, the Legislature passed into law a voluntary certification program for recovery houses. Winters said fewer than half of the 60 known recovery homes in Huntington have started the certification process.
“At some point, there will be a catastrophic fire in one of these types of homes,” Winters said.
Williams said city residents are frustrated by recovery houses moving into their neighborhood without prior warning. When businesses operate in Huntington, Williams said, they usually start by talking to the fire marshal and other code inspectors to make sure a structure is within code, and they obtain a business license.
Not all the homes have business licenses, certificates of occupancy or assurance from inspectors that it is a safe place to live, the mayor said.
Williams offered Huntington as a location of a pilot project for any measures the Legislature takes next year to address the issues.
“We have to make sure that everything that we’re doing for those who are fighting addiction and substance use disorder, we’re giving them an opportunity to be able to bring their life back,” he said. “Those who are simply looking to take advantage of them should be shut down yesterday.”
One problem is that if recovery house operators don’t want to deal with cities’ regulations, they will move outside city limits into unincorporated areas, where fewer inspections — if any — will be required and the level of public safety services will be less. Neighbors, volunteer fire departments and others have fewer recourses to deal with problems that arise.
The oversight and regulation of recovery centers is a life-and-death matter on many levels. Williams and others are correct in saying cities need more ability to oversee the growing addiction recovery industry, but it’s a matter that must be addressed at the county and state levels, also, and it certainly should be on the agenda for the next session of the Legislature.