Sober house fights city

Tenants intend to use a Supreme Court decision to avoid an April 1 eviction.

by Vadim Lavrusik

Residents of a student sober house in Marcy-Holmes are responding with legal action against the city of Minneapolis after receiving a notice of eviction for overoccupancy in February.

Seven students of the University House, the only sober house in the area designated for students recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, live in the seven-bedroom single-family home, which under city zoning restrictions allows only three unrelated people to live together. For more people to live in the house, they must be a family.

The students could be evicted by April 1, but are fighting the city based on the Oxford House ruling in the Supreme Court that allowed an exception to zoning rules for people living together with common disabilities such as alcoholism or drug addition.

The result of the legal actions could change the way the city responds toward other sober houses in the area, threatening their existence, said Stephen Cox, a sociology senior who lives in the sober house.

“If ours gets shut down, the fear is others will get shut down for violating zoning laws,” Cox said.

Legal battle

The issue arose when a neighbor filed a complaint to the city saying that the sober house was a halfway house, which requires a license and usually has a supervising staff on the property, Cox said.

University House is not a halfway house; it is a group of students recovering from alcohol or drug addiction who choose to live together for accountability, he said.

“It is easier to be together, to have people keep you in check and look after you,” he said.

Nate Stahn, office support representative at Housing Inspection Services, said Ward 3 councilwoman Diane Hofstede’s name was listed as the complainant.

Hofstede said she was aware of the student sober house in the neighborhood but couldn’t comment on the legal situation because she wasn’t aware of the details and circumstances.

JoAnn Velde, deputy director of Housing Inspection Services, said complaints often come through council members because of a complaint that comes to them, but the information is supposed to remain private.

Housing Inspections sent an inspector to the property on Feb. 16, and concluded that it was illegally occupied, with four people too many living there.

Velde said because the house isn’t licensed as a “legitimate recovery” facility, it has to comply with zoning laws just like any other rental property.

The Supreme Court decision in City of Edmonds v. Oxford House gave exception to zoning rules for disabled people living in single-family homes.

The decision allowed Oxford House, a nonprofit umbrella organization of 300 private group homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, to house nonrelated members in a single-family home even though it violated overoccupancy laws.

Cox said because of the ruling, people living with a common disability, such as alcoholism, are considered a family.

“We are going to stay at the house,” he said. “We are justified to stay there.”

Also, under the federal Fair Housing Act, some sober house landlords exempt themselves from local zoning laws because the act prohibits local jurisdictions from controlling how many disabled people live together, and alcoholics and addicts are considered disabled.

Options

Thomas Lincoln, board member of Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, said he talked to neighbors who were concerned about overoccupancy and licensing issues at the University House but didn’t know a formal complaint had been filed.

Lincoln said the association supports the zoning ordinances, and the sober house would have to get a conditional-use permit to house more than three people.

Callan Crawford, owner of nine sober houses in St. Paul, said when his homes were over-occupied he had the fire marshal inspect them so he could receive a certificate of occupancy, making it a boarding house.

He said the city’s goal was safety, not to have his sober houses shut down.

“We have a right to live in the community as a group,” he said. “They know that they would be treading on dangerous legal ground if they tried to deny us that right.”

National issue

The issue is not only a local issue, but also a nationwide issue.

Richard Mark, owner of the University House, said sober houses in similar circumstances are “fighting cities” around the country.

“It was a very unfair complaint and totally unjustified, and thus we find ourselves in a position of battling the city on something that’s been battled all over the country,” he said.

Mark also said he doesn’t understand why neighbors would complain when his tenants don’t party or drink and are respectful of neighbors.

Sober houses

Sober houses differ from halfway houses because they are unregulated private homes where groups of recovering alcoholics and addicts live together.

There are more than 100 sober houses in the metro area, with at least 50 in St. Paul. Most of the houses are single-family homes.

Sober houses often have rules to help tenants in their recovery process.

The University House has rules such as having to attend a minimum of two Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each week, having to be sober a minimum of 90 days before beginning course work, and avoiding “unhealthy” environments like bars and parties.

Tenants in sober houses are often evicted if they break sobriety or other rules.

Cox said most of the students at the University House are there on their own accord.

For more information about the University House, visit http://soberstudents.org.