Quietly last month, a new state law became effective that could have a profound impact on the numerous sober living homes in our city. The law creates a voluntary certification program for sober living homes.

Sober living homes, for those who are not familiar, are residential buildings where persons in addiction recovery may reside during the recovery period. Sober living homes are not usually run as a business, but are operated by individuals or groups of individuals. These homes are protected by federal law, and municipalities have no ability to control their location. Therefore, they can, and often do, open without warning in residential areas.

The stand-alone recovery house model has had some success, but there have been instances where the protective nature of the federal anti-discrimination statutes have engendered a profit motive. The new law addresses some of the problems that we have seen. Those who seek certification by establishing specific protocols, treatment programs and trained staffing become eligible for state funding and all-important state agency referrals of clients. Homes that don't get certified can legally operate, but they receive no assistance from the state.

Why is this program of such great importance to our city? Huntington has, at last count, 32 sober living homes. The homes and their occupants are protected from discriminatory practices by the federal Fair Housing Act. With federal anti-discrimination protection for cover, there is money to be made. In many cases, the houses are substandard and unrentable on the real estate market. A crafty owner can buy a dilapidated house for $10,000 and net more than $4,000 per month operating a sober living house.

The community of recovering addicts are among the most vulnerable people in our city. When they earnestly seek to recover from their addictions, they should be supported and protected as much as possible. The City of Huntington, with assistance from the West Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (WVARR), drafted the legislation to require a common sense approach to sober living homes by state agencies. With substantial support from Delegate Rohrbach, Senator Woelfel and Senator Plymale, the legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support. Speaking on the Senate floor in favor of the bill, Senator Woelfel proclaimed that the law will be transformative, and that it will "be a model for other states to follow" in the movement toward community-based addictions recovery.

The programs enacted by the City of Huntington over the past two years have had a transformative effect on overdose rates as well as the types of crimes attendant to illegal drug use. We are confident that we can continue the positive change with the new law.

We envision the eventual closure of the sober living homes identified as having these elements which create a negative impact on the recovery process: little or no programming; incompetent or absent supervision; overcrowding; unsafe living conditions; and lack of affiliation with established programs. A reader may question why we don't move in and close these facilities notwithstanding the new law. Federal law provides these homes with the same protection that are accorded group homes for persons with other types of physical disabilities. So, dealing with sober living homes can be tricky.

Many have complained in the past that while we all want to take care of our own, we have no appetite for assuming the problems of others. The argument is that we owe no moral obligation, and have no resources, to accept a transient population seeking sober living facilities in our city. We believe that the new law will assist in addressing the issue by eliminating the worst of the sober living facilities. My office is also actively engaged in discussions with the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation to only permit the approval of parole release plans involving this city when the parolees have significant ties here.

I write this column in appreciation of the effort of the Mayor Steve Williams' administration, the recovery community, our legislative delegation and state agencies to arrive at an innovative solution to a problem that affects us all. This seemingly obscure legislation will positively impact all of the citizens of Huntington for years to come.

Scott A. Damron is city attorney for the city of Huntington.


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