Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Thursday, May 12, 2016
Pennsylvania lawmakers looking to regulate recovery houses
Posted: Monday, April 4, 2016
HARRISBURG — Jonathan Henry sat before state lawmakers Monday, testifying about how a Bristol Township recovery home saved his life.
He then talked about the more than 10 other homes he passed through before that, between 2004 and last year, and the drug activity among their residents, the electrical and plumbing problems and overcrowded conditions.
Recovery house operators Micki and Gary Kaisinger
"It's crucial that houses become available to people. The bad part is what needs to be addressed," Henry, 42, of Montgomery County, said at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on a proposed bill to create new regulations for so-called recovery houses. "They definitely have to be regulated."
Henry was one of a string of Pennsylvanians at the hearing calling for the government to step in and create oversight of the private houses for individuals who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, one of the fastest-growing segments of the housing industry, according to studies.
"We couldn't wait any more," said state Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, of Bristol Township, who drafted the House bill, which is modeled after one in Florida adopted last year. Her district has more than 90 recovery homes operating within a 16-square-mile radius.
For months, the recovery house issue has dominated Bristol Township council meetings, grabbing the attention and raising the frustrations of neighbors and some local officials.
"We need a change. It's a matter of life and death for recovery house residents," Amber Longhitano, a Bristol Township councilwoman, told Davis and other Democrat lawmakers. "I believe this is not beneficial to the community or the recovery community. What I believe is happening, I consider to be institutionalization."
In Pennsylvania, like most states, housing for individuals released from rehab, detox or prison, is an unregulated, but lucrative business. No government agency is responsible for overseeing recovery and sober living homes. There is no independent registry for parents and other caregivers to check for recovery home locations or no rating system on which ones are good and which aren't. Anyone can open a recovery house including individuals with criminal backgrounds.
Longhitano told lawmakers on Monday about a recovery house owner who also owns a construction business that employs recovery house residents. The owner grew tired of driving to individual recovery houses each day to pick up the men, so she opened her own home, the councilwoman said.
"I'm a Realtor. I have to be licensed by the state. I have to have continuing education every two years. I am watched and follow a code of ethics," Longhitano said. "There are people who have people in the most fragile state of their lives in their hands and they do not have to be licensed. "
Davis wants to see that change. Her bill, which has yet to be introduced in the House, would, among other things, provide the state’s first definition of a recovery residence and create a state board of recovery residences, which would enact voluntary certification for such homes, oversee them, and create a public registry of certified recovery houses.
It would also require annual inspections at the voluntary certified homes, criminal background checks for key employees and owners and require homes to develop policies and procedures, including mandatory drug testing, relapse and refund policies and policies to support resident recovery efforts and address neighbor concerns and complaints.
Bristol Township map showing recovery house locations
Pennsylvania would create a new professional credential for operators: Recovery Residence Administrator, which would be required for certified recovery house managers under Davis’ bill. Now, most recovery home managers are residents with several months of sobriety who live rent-free in exchange for enforcing house rules. The bill would also require licensed drug and alcohol service providers to refer or send individuals exclusively to certified recovery residences or face a withholding of state funding and fines.
Bensalem, Falls and Middletown have recently revised their zoning ordinances to address recovery houses in an attempt to manage them better. Bristol Township has put on hold accepting any new group home applications while it scrutinizes its zoning and land use codes to address recovery houses.
But keeping recovery houses out of communities is illegal. Recovering substance abusers are protected under the federal Fair Housing Act as disabled, and local governments are prohibited from passing zoning and land use laws that would keep recovery houses out of communities, including residential neighborhoods, or treat them differently than other types of housing.
Davis and others who testified Monday emphasized that recovery houses are an important part of continuum of care for drug treatment and maintaining long-term sobriety for some people. However, many testified how unscrupulous owners and operators are using federal disability and housing protection to fatten their wallets.
"During my tenure as city solicitor I see, far too often, the differences between reputable and respectable recovery operators and those more nefarious operators," said Jason Sabol, solicitor for the city of York in York County, which has also struggled with a proliferation of recovery houses. "What was supposed to be a bastion of recovery is instead a flophouse for addicts and a dream come true for dealers."
The only glint of oversight in Bucks County has revolved around the Bucks County Recovery House Association, a network of 14 owner-operators with roughly 50 recovery and sober living homes for individuals who are more stable in recovery. Since 2004, the group has practiced self-regulation under its own set of guidelines and inspection process and recently became an affiliate of the Pennsylvania Association of Recovery Residence, which follows nationally recognized standards.
Recovery house owner Bryan Kennedy, who operates three recovery houses, and Micki and Gary Kaisinger, who have five recovery houses, testified that they want more oversight and regulations. They support Davis' proposed bill.
"It's terrible that quality, caring and legitimate homes ... have to suffer under the same reputation as homes without the same ideals," Micki Kaisinger said. "I am pushing for something that is essentially going to make my life harder. I don't care one bit about that though because I believe in recovery houses. I believe they help save lives."
For the last 18 months, the independent state Certification of Drug and Alcohol Recovery Houses Task Force has been meeting to devise recommendations to create a voluntary certification system for recovery houses. The group is expected to release by June its full recommendations to the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, which oversees medically related treatment programs and centers. The agency currently provides $3.8 million in funding to 59 recovery house operators statewide, which covers stays for qualified low income residents.
Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Gary Tennis told lawmakers that his agency has already received some recommendations involving physical standards and a definition of recovery residences. He hopes to create oversight through regulation, rather than legislation, though he is open to the possibility.
"My request to the general assembly, at this point in time, is to permit the task force to complete its work and allow the department to act upon its recommendations," he said.
Davis told Tennis she is willing to wait on introducing her legislation, but not for much longer.
"I'd hate to break for the summer and not have anything," Davis said.
Jo Ciavaglia: 215-949-4181; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @JoCiavaglia