Massachusetts Sober Houses: A Discussion on Zoning
Massachusetts Zoning and Sober Living
Sober house operators must work cooperatively with the communities in which they operate. For many this is a simple concept—right up until you’re in front of a building, zoning, or planning official at City Hall. Without a doubt, legal concerns account for significant portion of the questions which come up from new Operators of sober houses. And for good reason! There is likely more misinformation about sober houses and zoning than there are credible articles and resources on the topic. While the legal landscape is complex, the concepts are fairly simple.
What is a Sober House?
Sober homes are recovery-focused sober group living environments which provide the opportunity for individuals in recovery to live as a family focused on the need to change their individual lifestyle to one free of alcohol and drug use.Sober houses are good for our world. Since March 12, 1989 (the effective date of the 1988 Amendments to the Federal Fair Housing Act) their protection has been a matter of Federal law. Those amendments to the Fair Housing Act make it unlawful for any jurisdiction to discriminate against those who are disabled and those affiliated with them. Like Federal law, Massachusetts General Laws c. 40A, Section 3, as interpreted by case law, affords persons in recovery from substance certain protections, including that groups of disabled individuals may live together in the same numbers allowable at the same property as if it were occupied by a single family. In short, unrelated disabled individuals living together are to be treated the same as related individuals living as a family.
Sober House Residents are "Disabled"
Men and women in recovery from substance abuse fall within the scope of the term "disabled". The prevailing legal theory is that sober homes, group homes for the disabled, may not be discriminated against, including discrimination by municipalities, their boards, and their zoning by-laws. The intent of these laws is to remove any barriers for housing opportunities for disabled individuals that may be created by ordinances, zoning laws or decisions of municipalities, such as limits on the number of unrelated people that may live together.
Massachusetts Legal Decisions on Sober Living
Several legal decisions in Massachusetts have applied M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3 to sober recovery homes. “As a civil rights statute, [M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3] is remedial and the court must construe it liberally. [citations omitted] In the present case, the court concludes that Massachusetts would look to federal law, including the FHA, in interpreting the phrases“disabled person” and “persons with disabilities”, and that by so doing, the MZA must be ready to bar the City’s discriminatory treatment of a group home for recovering drug and alcohol users under the code.” See City of Brockton v. St. Mary Broad Street.
Let me be clear, this discussion is not intended to be legal advice. However, the intent of the laws is clear and the interpretations by state courts have supported the rights of sober houses and their operators. Sober homes can be established in a any home in which a family can do the same. Can you move in with your partner and twelve children? If so, a sober home can do the same, provided they follow the same health and safety laws which would apply to the family of fourteen.
Do you have a vision to open a sober house in your community? Are you an existing operator with questions on how to navigate this tricky legal landscape? We’re here to help. Our staff includes experienced operators, support personnel, and in-house legal services for franchised Operators. We’d love to help you out.