As New Jersey confronts a surge in heroin and painkiller addiction, homes that cater to recovering addicts have flourished in a legal gray area, one with little regulation and virtually no oversight. Now, as these residences spread through the state, officials are again turning their attention to a phenomenon that, while often seen as a vital part of the recovery process, has also been marked by problems.
Gaps in the regulation of homes for recovering addicts came to light in August 2009, when a 23-year-old Bridgewater man died in a fire at a home in Toms River. The house was run by a Neptune couple, who owned several other homes through their company, Bright New Horizons. The three-bedroom Toms River home had been packed to twice its legal capacity and had no fire-safety equipment, officials said.
But despite the lessons learned from the incident — state fire officials and criminal justice placement services say they now conduct more inspections — there are still few legal protections in place for the thousands of people seeking recovery housing in New Jersey.
“Sober living is not really regulated at all,” said Michael Frank, who runs the three Milestone houses for recovering addicts in Dover. “That’s part of a potential problem.”
In the absence of state oversight there is no way to tell which houses are safe, let alone effective, Frank said.
Public documents, along with interviews with officials, families, addicts in recovery, and current and former treatment providers, show a state regulatory framework struggling to keep pace with a growing housing demand for recovering addicts.
So-called sober-living homes were originally envisioned as a transitional step between the clinical stage of recovery and independent life. But the expense of and increased demand for detoxification centers has pushed more freshly rehabilitated addicts into recovery housing at a quicker pace.
There is also a broad variability in the quality of sober homes, which cost residents anywhere from $75 to $500 a week for a room.
“Some are managed really well,” said a North Jersey clinician who asked that her name not be used because she has worked in addiction treatment and recovery housing. “The ones that are not managed, you have a bunch of addicts running around and using and doing whatever they want.”
Some New Jersey sober houses are affiliated with treatment centers and licensed through the state Department of Human Services. Most, though, are unaccredited and unlicensed. While technically required to be registered as boardinghouses by the state Department of Community Affairs, the great majority are not, and the DCA only identifies them when complaints are filed.
Now, five years after the Toms River fire, there is a legislative movement to bring homes for recovering addicts under more rigorous state scrutiny, but it is not clear which agency will oversee them or how rigorous the requirements may be.
“If you are going to call yourself a drug-free environment and you want to market to vulnerable addicts and profit off it, you need to have rules in place,” said Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, a Jersey City Democrat who sponsored a bill to place sober homes under the control of the Department of Human Services, which typically only oversees facilities that offer clinical care.
“This isn’t an attack on the industry or the characters,” Mukherji said. “But the point is that there is no oversight right now, and I think there should be.”
Abuse in recovery
The bill Mukherji sponsored this spring was named for Nick Rohdes, a 24-year-old from Colts Neck who died from a heroin overdose in February after he was thrown out of a sober-living home for using drugs.
Rohdes had lived at Temperance Hall in Trenton for several months and seemed to be doing well, according to his mother, Alba Herrera.
Eventually, one of Temperance Hall’s owners — Allen Sassman, a real estate developer who also is an addict in recovery — asked Rohdes to take on a leadership position in a new house in Lambertville, Herrera said.
In February, Rohdes was caught using drugs. Sassman said he offered to place him in a rehabilitation facility; instead, Rohdes drove to his mother’s home in Levittown, Pa. She found him the next morning, dead from a heroin overdose.
Herrera was furious that Sassman had not told her that her son had relapsed or that he had been thrown out of a home. She reached out to state officials and learned that Temperance Hall was under investigation for operating without a boardinghouse license from the Department of Community Affairs, as privately owned sober houses should be, in theory.
Sassman says he had no idea he needed state licensing.
Temperance Hall first came to the attention of city authorities in Trenton, Sassman said, after a March 2013 newspaper article about the house’s grand opening.
The city blocked the house’s opening, saying it had no idea the facility existed and that it lacked occupancy and zoning approval, according to local news reports.
Sassman immediately changed the property from mixed use to single-family residential. He said that city officials did not say anything about occupancy limits and that his lawyers assured him that federal disability laws provided the right to house more than five unrelated people in the house’s eight-bedrooms. Residents moved in shortly thereafter.
It wasn’t until nearly a year later, after Rohdes’ death, that the state became involved.
In March 2014, the DCA’s Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards issued violation notices to Sassman’s facilities in Trenton and Lambertville, state records show. The houses were closed, and Sassman was ordered to pay a $5,000 penalty, to provide proof that city codes were complied with it and to apply for a boardinghouse license.
Sassman, who also runs a sober house in Levittown, Pa., said he is working with the city and the state to bring the Trenton home, which is currently housing five people as a single-family house, into compliance. The Lambertville house remains closed, he said.
State records show that Sassman signed an agreement with the state this spring.
Another network of privately owned sober homes, Hansen House LLC, has been in litigation with the state for a year and a half over whether the houses were required to be licensed by the DCA as boardinghouses. In December, a state administrative law judge ruled that the houses needed to be licensed and levied a $5,000 fine.
Sassman himself said he believes that the state should impose regulations.
“There’s no licensing, there’s no checks and balances,” he said. “They are putting anywhere from five to 18 people in single-family houses in residential neighborhoods, violating all kinds of local ordinances.”
While the state should monitor the “gaps in accountability,” Sassman said, addicts, too, need to “be accountable for their actions.”
James, a recovering oxycodone addict from Bergen County, said his 13 months at the Milestone house — after five years of clinical treatments and recovery housing across the country — taught him just that.
“I learned how to live again,” said James, who is in his 20s and asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons. “I learned how to build relationships with real people, develop and actually use a support group and was held accountable on a daily basis.”
The uncertain status of these houses makes them difficult to regulate, Mukherji said. Are they simple rooming arrangements, boardinghouses protected by disability laws, or part of a continuum of clinical care for recovering addicts?
“There was this gray area between halfway houses” — which are regulated by the DCA — “and pure roommate arrangements,” Mukherji said. “If you are just a landlord, then you would have to follow landlord-tenant laws,” which would prohibit automatic eviction, a common practice in sober homes. “If there is something more — if there are additional rules, a philosophy — then you are not just a landlord.”
Frank, the owner of the Milestone houses, recently obtained a boardinghouse license for his homes, after a visit from a state inspector.
“I got the feeling the state didn’t know what to do with us,” he said.
Frank said he now has a legal waiver to allow the houses to provide certain services, like drug testing and career training. He said he has also taken steps to comply with fire codes for rental homes and boardinghouses.
Frank believes homes for recovering addicts are the wave of the future, as the cost of care rises and more people struggle with long-term sobriety.
“With any industry, you have the good and the bad,” Frank said. “If you are not being regulated, are you doing the right thing for the right thing’s sake?”
Other states have also struggled to regulate recovery housing.
In 2012, California investigators released a scathing report on the state’s sober homes and residential treatment programs. It found widespread mismanagement, neglect and illegal medical care under a lackadaisical regulatory system.
Two years later, a bill that would require rehabilitation centers, including sober-living homes, to report deaths in their facilities is awaiting approval from Gov. Jerry Brown. But there is no legislation that would regulate sober homes.
In Florida, which like Pennsylvania is known for an abundance of inpatient addiction-treatment facilities and recovery housing, legislation to create a voluntary certification program for sober-living facilities died in the state Senate in May.
Last month, Ohio’s General Assembly passed legislation that would fund and regulate recovery housing.
Often, it is family members who have spearheaded such reform. For instance, Elizabeth Berardi, whose 23-year-old son died earlier this year in a home for recovering addicts in Torrington, Conn., founded Safe Sober Living, an advocacy group that seeks to regulate recovery housing.
In California, the mother of a young man who died in a sober house has been pressing for Jarrod’s Law, which would regulate the industry.
New Jersey legislators seem poised to regulate sober houses, recognizing them not just as |rental arrangements but as recovery facilities on a spectrum of |care.
Some of the resistance to regulation stems from concerns about infringing on constitutional protections for the disabled, which allow groups of recovering addicts to live together and shields them from special scrutiny, so long as no medical treatment is being provided.
Supporters of recovery houses have also argued that additional oversight could close these facilities at precisely the time they are most needed to address the surge in heroin and opioid abuse.
Until regulations are passed, the state Department of Community Affairs says it is addressing the licensing of homes for recovering addicts on a “case-by-case basis,” as illegally operating homes come to its attention through complaints, according to spokeswoman Tammori Petty.
“When it comes to regulating care, they must be regulated by the DHS or the Department of Health,” said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, who co-sponsored Mukherji’s sober-living bill.
The Nick Rohdes Law was unanimously cleared by the Assembly Human Services Committee last Thursday. The Department of Human Services, which would be charged with the oversight of sober homes should the measure become law, does not comment on pending legislation, a spokeswoman said.
A similar bill in the state Senate, sponsored by Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth, would give the state Department of Human Services authority over homes for recovering addicts and require the facilities to restrict admission based on criminal history, if the facility is near a school.
One legal opinion from the state Office of Legislative Services indicates that DHS may already have the ability to regulate sober-living homes, if not a mandate to do so.
“Although there is no provision of New Jersey law that expressly references the term ‘sober living homes,’ state law does provide a comprehensive system for the licensure, certification, inspection and regulation of both alcoholic-treatment facilities and narcotic- and drug-abuse treatment facilities,” Adaline Kaser, senior counsel at the Office of Legislative Services, wrote in a Feb. 24 memorandum to Assemblyman David Rible, R-Monmouth. A similar letter was sent to Mukherji’s office in March.
While the missions of a sober-living home and a drug-treatment center are widely different — one is simply a place to live while the other provides detoxification, counseling and medical treatment — a look at how DHS monitors treatment centers could offer some insight into how new regulations for addiction-recovery homes might work.
For instance, DHS-licensed treatment centers are required to report monthly admissions and discharges, maintain clinical and patient records, and report staff misconduct. At least half the |staff at a residential treatment center must be certified drug-and-alcohol counselors, with the other half working toward certification. Criminal background checks are required even for volunteers.
However, Sassman, the sober-living-home owner who favors regulation, believes those types of rules would undermine the purpose of the homes he runs and make them “cost-prohibitive” for many.
“A recovery house is nothing more than transitional housing back into mainstream America,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be counseling or rehabilitation. They should have already gone through that process. That’s what a rehab is, that’s what detox is, that’s what aftercare is.”
But Sassman acknowledges that with detoxification and rehabilitation facilities limited by insurance and overcrowding, many people are pushed into homes for recovering addicts long before they are ready.
“They are taking advantage of people in crisis mode,” said Herrera, Rohdes mother. “They are an integral part of recovery, and I do believe in it. The way it is right now, you are playing Russian roulette.”