MONTPELIER — A bill in the state House of Representatives proposes to change laws around recovery residences to enable their expansion throughout the state and ensure accessibility to individuals recovering from substance abuse.
The bill, H.211, proposes a common definition for recovery residences and seeks an exclusion from part of the Residential Rental Agreements Act. It also requires a municipality to generally treat these programs as a residential home under municipal zoning and land use regulations.
Jeffrey T. Moreau is executive director of the Vermont Alliance for Recovery Residences (VTARR). He says the bill will further enhance the growth of this resource across the state, which currently has many gaps in offerings. Moreau says not having a simple definition in statute that adequately describes what a recovery residence represents has led to misinterpretation, discrimination and unnecessary expense to operators.
Opponents say, as introduced, H.211 would endorse and codify the unsafe (and currently unlawful) practice of subjecting sober house tenants to sudden removal from their homes, without judicial process or oversight and would strip a particularly stigmatized and marginalized class of disabled tenants of standard eviction protections.
Vermont ranks fourth in the country for alcohol dependence and is also seeing a rise in stimulant use. In fact, The state Health Department’s 2020 final fatalities data brief shows Vermont saw a 38% increase in accidental and undetermined opioid-related fatalities.
“Recovery residences support those individuals with both substance use disorder and/or alcohol dependence. They provide an environment that offers a homelike setting for individuals recovering from alcohol and substance use disorders,” says Moreau.
But Tom Dalton, executive director of Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform, is calling for a statewide safety net for individuals who need safe temporary housing and recovery stabilization services.
“Sober houses commonly respond to a relapse or recurrence in the use of alcohol or other drugs by subjecting tenants to sudden discharge to unsafe settings like homelessness or incarceration. Sober house leaders say they discharge tenants who relapse to protect the other tenants. This is a legitimate concern. Yet tenants who experience a recurrence are particularly vulnerable and have legitimate safety concerns as well,” he said.
Moreau says the bill makes clear that the decision to enter a recovery residence is voluntary and is designed to protect the interest of all parties while attempting to prevent re-incarceration and homelessness. At the same time he says relapse is a part of recovery and the bill calls for implementing a self-directed relapse plan and additional supports for individuals that may have limited options.
“We are also currently working on a more system-oriented safety net of supports that further wrap around the individual. Removal is well defined and in most cases only temporary. This point cannot be emphasized enough. When one enters a recovery residence it is clear that sobriety is and must be maintained,” he said.
Vermont changed zoning standards more than 30 years ago for independent living group homes for people with disabilities.
Today, most recovery residences in Vermont are treated as single-family dwellings with up to eight unrelated adults. The bill provides a common definition for zoning of these recovery residences.
“Currently, zoning differs from city to town. Even though people in recovery are a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act and its amendments, some local governments around the country — under political pressure — will illegally discriminate against people in recovery with land use or health and safety ordinances that regulate recovery residence above and beyond housing for individuals without a disability,” says Moreau.
Discriminatory activity such as this is often referred to as “Not In My Back Yard” (NIMBY), and raises barriers for people in recovery to accessing housing.
“With limited resources to navigate the legal system, which can be stigmatizing into itself, recovery residence providers are often bullied out of municipalities, leaving local people in recovery without this important resource,” says Moreau.
Melinda White is the access and recovery coordinator at Phoenix House of New England. She says despite the current housing and addiction crisis, there are currently open beds in recovery residences.
“We need to get people in those beds. We need to get support for the recovery residence movement,” she said.