HAVERHILL — A new ordinance passed by the City Council this week requires operators of sober homes to register with the city, provide contact details, and identify who is running the establishment — all information that previously was unavailable and now will be available to the public.
Sober houses are residences for people in recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol, many with co-occurring mental health issues, as they transition from a treatment setting to life in a community.
Council President Melinda Barrett introduced the idea for such an ordinance last fall. In turn, City Solicitor William Cox developed it, then filed it with the council in December. The ordinance then went before the Planning Board and finally back to the council for approval. It now must be signed by Mayor James Fiorentini.
Barrett said she initially saw the need for the ordinance after a July 5, 2019 incident at a group home on Westland Terrace that works for and with the Department of Mental Health. Police said one of the residents used a steak knife to slash the tires of about a dozen vehicles in that neighborhood.
"We were concerned at the time that police didn't have updated contact information for that home," Barrett said. "I know of at least two sober homes in the city and we should have contact information on all sober homes in the event there are any issues."
She said it is unclear how many sober homes actually exist in Haverhill.
The ordinance is intended to protect residents of sober homes from neglect, mistreatment and poor supervision, as well as protecting neighbors from operators who fail to provide a proper living environment and quality of life for residents of sober homes, Cox said.
The ordinance also prohibits sober homes from housing people who pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others, such as a person on the sex offender registry or prison pre-parolees.
Sober home operators must now provide the city with their address, phone and email contact information for the property owner, the facility operator and house managers; a plan for off-street parking; as well as a plan for operation and maintenance of the property and noise abatement plans.
Any changes are required to be reported to the city clerk's office.
Cox said the new registration process was modeled after one in Quincy and does not conflict with federal and state regulations.
"Be assured that the ordinance you have before you is legal," he said during Tuesday night's City Council meeting. "I say that because there are some obstacles to regulating sober homes."
He said sober homes fall within the parameters of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"We run the risk, as did the community of Framingham, when they tried to enforce some local regulations against sober homes as if they were rooming houses, and they lost the case and were fined one million dollars," he said. "We certainly don't want to be in that particular position."
For code enforcement purposes, the city has to treat a sober home as single-family homes, Cox said.
"We can't require that they undergo an annual occupancy permit process or inspections, because doing that would take them outside of the parameters of single-family residences," he said.
Cox said that in general, sober homes have increased in numbers over the past several years and that courts and social service agencies are using them as a tool to try and keep people sober, healthy, and living in a community.
Councilors expressed their support for it, but had a few questions.
Councilor Timothy Jordan asked if the ordinance was lowering the bar in regard to fire safety by including a voluntary fire safety inspection as part of the registration process.
Cox said he will be working with the fire chief on the issue of sprinklers, but that he doesn't want to put anything into the ordinance that could be called into question.
Councilor Michael McGonagle called the ordinance a "step forward for us."
"I think we're trying to tighten up our understanding of how these homes operate in our city," he said. "We have to protect the folks who are in these homes and the neighbors who are around these homes."
The council approved the ordinance 8-0. Councilor Mary Ellen Daly O'Brien was absent.