Sober-home owner: City should legally treat residents as families

Mark Hayward, The New Hampshire Union Leader, Manchester
·4 min read

Apr. 23—The owner of sober-living homes on Orange Street and Dubuque Street in Manchester wants the city to recognize the residents as a family, which would allow them to avoid a challenging city permitting process.

Into Action Sober Living submitted paperwork to city regulators before deadlines set for earlier this month.

The company's lawyer, Andrew Tine, wrote that the city should recognize the residents of each home as "a structured relationship constituting an organized housekeeping unit, thus meeting the definition of a 'Family' under the City's Zoning Ordinance."

As a family, the residents of the sober homes would have a right to live in any residential area of the city without a permit.

In the alternative, their lawyer asked for a reasonable accommodation for disabled occupants under the federal Fair Housing Act. In both letters, he raised the possibility of seeking city permits if the alternatives fail.

For more than a year, the company has been battling the city over the sober homes, which are operating without permits that the city says are required. Lawyers on both sides have different interpretations of zoning and housing discrimination laws.

Many different models of sober homes exist, though all involve adults who have gone through initial drug or alcohol treatment programs and rely on mutual support to maintain sobriety and long-term recovery.

Into Action operates a women-only home in a single-family home on Orange Street and a men-only home in a triple decker on Dubuque Street.

Critics say the homes have never been properly permitted and need to be the subject of a public hearing and votes by city regulatory boards. The city has said sober living houses fall under either the category of congregate housing or of rooming houses in the city zoning code.

The city has not replied to Tine's submissions. Leon LaFreniere, the commissioner of planning and community development, did not respond to an email asking about the next step.

Richard Girard, a former alderman and school board member running for mayor, has said the city should be more forceful in dealing with the sober homes.

Girard lives on the same block as the Orange Street home. Tine has ignored what the city told him to do in February, which was to apply for a variance, and has missed the deadline, Girard said.

"Therefore, the neighbors expect the city will take the enforcement actions it raised in February without further delay," he said.

In a statement, mayoral candidate Victoria Sullivan said sober homes are necessary if the city wants to get people off the street and into permanent housing.

The city needs to have clear guidelines for businesses to create sober homes, she said.

"There seems to be a 'not in my back yard mentality' until it is your son or daughter facing addiction, or the homeless camps start showing up in your neighborhood," Sullivan said.

In the past, Mayor Joyce Craig has said the city will enforce "all applicable legal requirements, and pursue appropriate enforcement actions against any property owners who fail to comply with the law."

In a statement Thursday, Craig said, "I believe everyone should have a safe place to live, and Manchester enforces zoning ordinances and life safety requirements to ensure that occurs."

The city has told Into Action that it needs a conditional-use permit, which is issued by the Planning Board, for the Dubuque Street property.

The Orange Street property needs a variance, a harder-to-obtain permit issued by the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Earlier this year, city officials told Into Action to submit information about each resident in the homes, including their names, dates of birth, sources of income, mail sent to the address and individual leases.

City officials say courts have asked for such information when a property owner asked for reasonable accommodations.

Into Action co-owner Jonathan Gerson submitted an affidavit that provides each resident's first name and last name initial, date of residency, year of birth, previous address and source of income.

Of the 26 people living in the two houses, 22 are employed. Nine have a previous address in Manchester, 17 were outside Manchester, including six from out of state.

NOTE: This article has been corrected from a previous version, which said that 20 of the residents had a previous New Hampshire address.

mhayward@unionleader.com