Sober-living homes offer second chances, but draw concerns
A duplex near Stone Steps Beach offers sand, surf — and sobriety.
Known as a sober-living home, the Neptune Avenue duplex provides 12 recovering addicts a safe environment in which to kick their habits. But some neighbors, citing safety concerns and smoking nuisances, want stricter regulations slapped on it.
Concerns have flared up over alcohol- and drug-free homes in other Encinitas neighborhoods as well. But because of federal and California laws, the homes aren’t subject to permitting and receive no state oversight.
Ann Sullivan, who lives near the Neptune Avenue duplex, believes Encinitas should join forces with other cities that are trying to regulate such homes to demand reform at the state and federal levels.
“It is a disservice, especially to recovering addicts, not to regulate this industry,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said in the absence of state or federal standards, those running the homes in Encinitas and elsewhere could prey on the vulnerable to turn a buck.
“The recovering addicts and their families are paying thousands of dollars,” Sullivan said. “At the same time, there are no uniform rules for treatment standards or staff quality.”
Cities have passed laws to regulate the homes, but it remains to be seen whether those will hold up in court.
Facing a proliferation of such homes, Costa Mesa in October approved an ordinance requiring homes to obtain a special-use permit. A lawsuit followed shortly after. It argues that the ordinance discriminates against addicts because, among other reasons, they’re protected under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
And the lawsuit says the federal Fair Housing Act prevents cities from discriminating in housing based upon disability.
Newport Beach passed regulations to address over-concentration, resulting in an ongoing courtroom battle.
Robert Crocker, director of operations for Southern California Recovery Centers, which runs the Neptune Avenue duplex, said he is proof of the homes’ benefits.
Crocker, a former addict who turned his life around five years ago, said residing in a sober-living home for a period was a key part of his journey. For him, running a home is a public service “and a way to give back,” he said.
The Neptune duplex, which opened in September, doesn’t take those who just gave up drugs and alcohol. They must first attend an in-patient treatment facility for a minimum of a month.
“The transition time between an intensive in-patient center and the real world is where I come in,” Crocker said. “They still need to have that highly structured living format.”
Two house managers at the duplex enforce the rules: Residents must have jobs, attend school or volunteer. Curfews and attending meetings dedicated to recovery are also mandatory.
While it didn’t have to get a state or federal license to open, the Neptune Avenue home is working toward voluntary accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities, an international nonprofit that provides certification in health and human services.
The industry, Crocker said, is mainly driven by referrals.
“I’ve accumulated friends throughout the state and country who trust and believe in me, and they know what I’m about,” Crocker said, noting he grew up locally.
Marketing also appears to play a role, with some of the homes touting Encinitas’ sunshine and beaches online.
The website for a sober-living facility in Cardiff states, “Home to Tony Hawk, Shaun White and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, Encinitas is home to colleges, recovery resources and 12-step meetings.”
In his experience, Crocker said, the tranquil atmosphere of Encinitas is the ideal spot for those turning over a new leaf.
At a community meeting with city officials two months ago, concerned neighbors said the Neptune Avenue home is responsible for excessive trash, and they complained smoke often wafts from the property. They also raised concerns after learning that some in the house have criminal records.
Crocker said people deserve a second chance, adding that his main goal when interviewing house candidates is to determine whether they’re serious about sobriety.
“I have a criminal background. If somebody didn’t give me a second chance, I wouldn’t be here,” he said.
Crocker said he was surprised to learn about some of the complaints because he’s hauled away trash and renovated the duplex, which was cited for a number of city code violations before the sober-living home opened.
“I think they have an sore eye for me due to the reputation that the house had before we moved in,” he said. But this gives him more motivation “to keep our side of the street cleaner.”
Because permits don’t have to be filed, the city has no way of knowing how many sober-living homes are in Encinitas, according to Joan Kling, city code enforcement manager.
Crocker said he knew of six people who own at least one sober-living facility in Encinitas.
Some of the other establishments have drawn neighborhood protests. Notably, residents complained about suspicious characters and other problems at Sandalwood Court, which has a sober-living home and nearby drug- and alcohol-treatment center.
The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs requires licenses for houses that provide on-site treatment. Yet sober-living homes are only considered drug- and alcohol-free zones, exempting them from licenses.
Two years ago, Councilman Mark Muir, who lives by Sandalwood Court, organized a meeting to educate the community about the issue and let neighbors speak about their concerns.
One takeaway from the meeting: Although various laws protect sober-living homes, illegal or questionable activity should be reported to law enforcement, Muir said. He added that people were reluctant or maybe didn’t think to call.
“No one should have to live in an area where they’re scared or people are doing stuff that’s not appropriate,” Muir said.
Since sober-living homes have become a citywide issue, he requested the topic be put on a future City Council agenda as an informational item.
“People need to understand we really need to work within the social and legal framework if they want to make any changes,” Muir said.
For now, Muir said he’s closely watching the lawsuit in Newport Beach and other related legal action.
“Tracking what’s happening up north, if there’s opportunities to deal with some of these issues legislatively, then we can explore that,” Muir said.