Dim Hope For Sober Living Home Invasion
A group of elected officials and their surrogates plus a couple of lawyers spoke to more than 150 residents last night at the Costa Mesa Neighborhood Community Center on the subject of Sober Living Homes. The news was not good.
This event, hosted by several legislators, the Association of California Cities - Orange County (ACC-OC) and the Orange County Association of Realtors (OCAR), offered a gloomy picture to those in attendance expecting to hear that the "solution" is just around the corner. It's not.
FROM HEATHER TO TODD
Moderator Heather Stratman, CEO of ACC-OC, kicked off the evening by introducing Todd Leishman, a lawyer from the firm of Best, Best and Krieger. He presented the audience with a brief primer on sober living, the local issues, legal challenges and local city ordinances. He moved briskly through his presentation, which included an admonition to attendees. He cautioned them to avoid saying things like, "I don't want them living next door to me." when addressing our city councils on this issue because that kind of statement could haunt the city later in court. He told us, "Don't do anything stupid." He spoke about the difference between licensed and non-licensed facilities, and how they must be treated differently by law. You'll get the gist of his presentation by following along on these slides.
MUNOZ UP NEXT
Next up was lawyer Patrick Munoz, with the firm of Rutan and Tucker and the City Attorney for the City of Dana Point. He also represents the City of Costa Mesa in their current sober living legal battles. He spoke of the City of Newport Beach's problems attempting to manage sober living homes - an effort that eventually cost them more than $10 million. He also talked of Dana Point's situation, mentioning that sober living is a BIG business, citing one facility in that city that charges $2,500 per month per bed. He spoke of the nuisance factor - Red Bull, cigarettes and loud talking. He stressed the "care and supervision" element and mentioned that if you can sort out the bad actors from the good ones it's likely that the bad actors will go out of business.
PANEL OF "EXPERTS"
Next came the panel of legislators and their surrogates. Seated on the dais were Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, State Senator John Moorlach, State Assemblyman Matthew Harper, former Huntington Beach councilman Joe Carchio representing Assemblyman Travis Allen and Leishman providing his views on Congressman Darrell Issa's pending bill. Later Munoz and Diana Coronado of ACC-OC joined the group for the Question and Answer period.
DANA BLAMES BAD POLICIES
First up was Rohrabacher, who got everyone's attention when he contradicted almost everything the two lawyers had said earlier. He said, "It's not about bad actors. It's about drug addicts and alcoholics in our neighborhoods!" He went on to describe this situation as a result of bad policies. He said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is bad policy. He said the Fair Housing laws are bad policy. He said the Affordable Care Act is bad policy because it throws a lot of money at the issue. Perhaps the best way to describe what he was aiming at is to repeat what he told Stacey Butler of CBS News in an interview shown on television later last night. Rohrabacher said, "They're putting drug addicts and alcoholics right next door to ordinary families which, of course, hurts the values of their property. But, also, there's some jeopardy that you're put into if you have children right next door to a bunch of drug addicts and alcoholics." He wants to move sober living facilities into commercial and/or industrial areas.
BEMOANING MINORITY STATUS
Moorlach, after composing himself following the double-take he did as Rohrabacher spoke, bemoaned the fact that he is limited to only 20 bills per year and that both he and Harper are at a big disavantage as members of a minority party in the state legislature.
Harper told anecdotes about neighbors and their problems with sober living homes nearby. He also emphasized the limitations he has in the Assembly because the "other" party has a super-majority. He spoke of the proliferation of hard drugs, well beyond Marijuana, expressing concern that kids today are becoming hooked on opiates. He said, "Once they do that they're gone." Not exactly what you expect to hear from a legislator discussing sober living homes. He also spoke of clustering of sober living homes; proximity to schools; the need to change state laws to permit cities to deal with their sober living issues, but agreed that some level of state oversight and regulation will be necessary. He pleaded for city's to propose legislation that he could push forward. Funny, I thought that was HIS job. He also cited the need for volunteers/citizen organizations to spread the word state-wide and put pressure on the governor and legislature.
CITIES NEED TO WORK TOGETHER
Carchio gave some history to previous efforts, citing his own city as just not doing enough. He looked forward to Costa Mesa making progress, saying everyone is watching. He said the cities need to work together to get a bill passed, acknowledging that it will be difficult because "there is a lot of money to be made." Gee, no kidding!
40% OF CALIFORNIA SOBER LIVING HOMES ARE IN OC
Stratman told us the ACC-OC mission is to be a powerful regional voice on important issues, and mentioned that 40% of the sober living homes in California are located in Orange County. Yikes!
MENTAL HEALTH EFFECTS?
Then the panel began to respond to written questions from the audience.
The first question asked if mental health issues will be impacted by sober living homes. Moorlach told us that Orange County has only 10 mental health beds for a county of 3.1 million people.
BACKGROUND CHECKS ON OWNER/OPERATORS?
Another asked about background checks for owners and operators of sober living homes. Munoz said, "sometimes.", citing Costa Mesa litigation.
COSTA MESA ORDINANCE AND FAIR HOUSING LAWS
Another asked if Costa Mesa's ordinance violates Fair Housing laws? Munoz, answering as an attorney retained by the City, said, "Absolutely not!", with a grin on his face.
HOW TO PROTECT OUR NEIGHBORHOOD?
Another person, apparently from an unincorporated part of the county, cited their tranquil enviornment and asked how they can discourage sober living homes in their area? Carchio said "build a wall." Moorlach replied that they should contact the county.
Another question dealt with HR 6070 (Issa's bill) and how it would be implemented by the state. Leishman said it's a federal bill, not a state bill. Carchio rambled on about it being a problem for realtors.
WHAT ABOUT DISCLOSURE?
That was followed by a question of disclosure of the existence of sober living homes in the case of a home sale. That was interesting to watch, since nobody really had an answer. Finally Munoz said, "Tell the truth. The truth will set you free." Leishman said if he were buying a home today he would ask every question he could about homes in the neighborhood - rentals, etc. - without actually asking about sober living homes.
SOBER LIVING HOMES AND HOMELESSNESS?
What turned out to be the final question asked about sober living homes and their contribution to homelessness. Munoz observed it is a common complaint, but he didn't have any specific information. Moorlach spoke of AB 109, Prop. 47 and the recently passed Prop 57, all of which changed the game regarding criminals being released back onto our streets sooner. At that point Rohrabacher launched into an echo of his earlier rant, citing failed policies. He ended by stating, "Expect very tough legislation early next year." He was not specific, but it was red meat for those looking for some light at the end of the sober living tunnel. It was almost like being at a Trump rally.
NOBODY HAS A HANDLE ON THIS!
I came away feeling that nobody really has a handle on the sober living industry - except those personally involved with it and making a LOT of money. All I see ahead is many more lawsuits being generated by our attempts to enforce our two existing laws. I found it ironic that as this meeting was going on the Costa Mesa Planning Commission was meeting to hear appeals of denials of permits from a couple such places. I know they denied an appeal to a long-time operator - a local businessman who has operated a sober living home on the up-and-up for more than a dozen years. More on that later.
WHERE WERE OUR LEADERS?
I must observe that the only city officials I saw in the crowd last night were not quite official - John Stephens and Allan Mansoor were in the room, but Mansoor bailed out early. Stephens stayed to the bitter end, trying to soak in as much information as he could for the tasks ahead of him on the City Council.
WAS IT WORTH IT?
Was it worth attending this meeting? Well, I guess so, because I really didn't expect to hear solutions presented. From that standpoint I was not disappointed. At one point I found myself looking at the men on the dais and thinking that Rohrabacher, Moorlach and Harper had just wrapped up successful re-elections based on the most recent numbers and yet they had nothing approaching a clue about how to manage this problem - and it IS a problem. I see many more lawsuits facing our city before we get this figured out.