New London seeks more regulations on sober houses

New London — The city is considering a groundbreaking change to a city ordinance that would create a licensing process to define, identify and open the city’s sober houses to annual inspections — a response to the ongoing opioid addiction crisis.

The proposed ordinance, currently in the hands of the City Council and open for public debate next month, would place the otherwise unregulated homes for recovering addicts into the same category that provides for an application and inspection process for hotels, rooming houses and convalescent homes.

The proposed changes would authorize the fire marshal, a health official and building inspector to perform annual inspections to ensure adherence to various codes and subsequently protect recovering addicts from unscrupulous landlords, said Human Service Director Jeanne Milstein, who helped spearhead the crafting of the ordinance.

“We’ve been devastated by the opioid crisis,” Milstein said. “Sober homes are an important and integral part of recovery. But tragically the world of sober houses is not all that transparent. It’s appalling to know sober houses are subject to no oversight.”

The proposal is one of several measures the city has taken in recent years as part of an effort to provide oversight of what city officials guess are about 35 sober homes in the city. An accurate number is difficult to determine, since the homes are protected by state and federal regulations and not subject to city zoning regulations.

The city simultaneously is pushing for state regulations and already has created a voluntary certification program run by the local nonprofit group Community Speaks Out.

Efforts at the state level have thus far failed to move forward, in part because of pushback from some state agencies. Because sober homes do not provide addiction treatment, they are not subject to state regulations and the tenants are considered disabled and protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and Federal Fair Housing Act.

In opposition to a proposed bill in Hartford last year, Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon said that “enacting laws that target individuals because of their disability would be discriminatory.”

Milstein argues the proposed changes are needed to protect some of the city’s most vulnerable residents — those seeking a safe and sanitary place to recover from the grip of addiction. It also is needed to help address concerns of neighbors.

She listed several examples of why regulations are needed: two overdose deaths at the same home, condemnation of three different homes owned by the same person and discoveries by fire officials of homes with countless beds but without proper ways to exit in the event of a fire.

Milstein said Mayor Michael Passero said the fact that other municipalities in the state haven’t passed similar ordinances doesn’t mean it’s not possible, since towns and cities in several other states have. Milstein points to St. Paul, Minn., and Phoenix, Ariz., as examples.

Passero said he remains frustrated by the lack of action at the state level and thinks, once completed, the ordinance will stand on solid legal grounds. It was crafted with the guidance of City Attorney Jeffrey Londregan.

“We need access to these facilities to make sure they are meeting all the requirements — health, fire and building codes — and that’s what’s not happening,” Passero said. “What makes them different? Why aren’t the people there getting the same protection of people living at boarding houses or anywhere else? Why are these people and the lives of public safety responders being put at risk?"

“It’s completely irresponsible for the state to let them operate with absolutely no regulations and the bodies are piling up,” Passero said. “We believe we have an obligation to the people who are in good faith seeking out this service.”

More than 1,000 people died from drug overdose deaths in 2017 and New London’s emergency services have been taxed as the number of responses to overdoses continues to increase.

And Passero said the victims of addiction are in a sense being revictimized by some of the landlords who are in it for the money.

The proposed ordinance, which has yet to define a sober house or set annual registration fees, was referred to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Committee Chairwoman Alma Nartatez said her hope is the ordinance, once completed, will require the landlords converting multi-family homes into businesses to move out of the shadows and become subject to regulations that provide protections for residents while allowing the city needed oversight and ability to reject license renewals if they do not meet certain criteria.

“We are not trying to limit or prohibit,” Nartatez said. “The goal is to make sure these establishments are safe and sanitary. I think this is important.”

Nartatez said there will be ample opportunity for the public to come forward and express concerns and support for the proposal both at the committee level and later when the full council takes it up. The initial discussion is expected to take place at an April 23 Public Safety Committee meeting.

g.smith@theday.com

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