In the auditorium of the Mather School at the top of Dorchester's Meetinghouse Hill, more than three dozen neighbors gathered on a recent Wednesday night for a sitdown with Boston’s chief building inspector.
They came together to block the opening of the second sober house on one street — warning there could be even more on the horizon.
A neighbor read from the petition they would soon deliver to the city: “These property owners have not engaged with residents who might be impacted by the increased number of individuals residing in their buildings prior to opening their doors."
With an opioid crisis underway that claims more than 100 lives a month in Massachusetts, advocates say sober homes provide an important resource: housing free of drugs and alcohol, with support for people in recovery. But in neighborhoods like Meetinghouse Hill, neighbors say their community is being unfairly targeted as a site for sober homes.
The tension isn't new, but advocates in the sober house world say a resolution could be in sight.
'We Need To Do Something'
The story starts with the couple that owned the big Victorian at 29 Percival for 31 years — Charlotte Golar Richie and her husband Winston. After raising their family on Meetinghouse Hill, the empty-nesters wanted to downsize to a smaller home in Lower Mills.
"I was an active neighborhood resident,” Richie said after the meeting. "I loved the neighborhood, loved my neighbors, and so it was very sad to me to see to see the results of what I call a housing sale go awry.”
A former state representative who ran for mayor in 2013, Golar Richie worked for more than a decade in the housing sector. But even with that experience she was surprised by what came next.
A month-and-a-half after the Richies moved out, the house sold yet again, this time for $785,000 — $86,000 more than the offer the Richies accepted. The new buyer operated through an LLC tied to a family that owns seven sober houses — all in Dorchester and Roxbury — including one at 16 Potosi St., just two houses down from the Richies' old place. Property records show the same owner is connected to a third property just steps away.
Neighbors soon reported to the city that workers were carrying mattresses into the Richies' old house. They knew another sober house was about to come online, and with an increasing interest in the neighborhood’s real estate, they felt they needed to act.
"I told my husband, I'm like, ‘We need to do something, because if we don't we're moving,' ” said Rochelle Nwosu, an educator whose house is between the existing sober house and the one in the works. "‘The house is going on the market, and we need to sell before they even take action because we're never going to be able to sell our property with two sober homes [next door].'”
'How Come We Don't See Them Happening In Milton?'
Across the street from the sober house at 16 Potosi, Lisa Villaroel surveys the neighborhood from her sidewalk. She has lived in Meetinghouse Hill for decades and seems to know all of the denizens — past and present — in what she calls a quiet neighborhood of Caribbean islanders, whites, Latinos, African-Americans and Cape Verdeans.
It’s a neighborhood largely made up of owner-occupied houses — with the vast Ronan Park at its center — and a strong tradition of community activism. To a passerby the sober home looks like any other house on the street. But to neighbors like Villaroel it’s a nuisance that could be about to multiply.
Villaroel says there haven't been any major problems over the six-plus years since the sober house opened, save some minor issues like noise and loitering. And like others in her neighborhood, she says she understands the need for this type of housing.
But she questions the concentration of sober houses — particularly in neighborhoods of color: “Why is it only happening to in the neighborhoods of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury? How come we don't see them happening in Milton? How come we don't hear about them in Hyde Park? And why aren't they going down by the wharf? There's a lot of space down there.”
According to the Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing (MASH), there are 180 certified sober houses in the state, including 22 in Boston. The group's database shows 17 of these certified homes are in Dorchester, in addition to a few in Roxbury and East Boston.
But certification is voluntary, and MASH estimates there are hundreds more uncertified sober houses across the state.
'They’re People That Are Living By A Set Of Rules'
Villaroel, Nwosu and 50 of their neighbors have signed a petition calling on the city to take a stronger position on the opening of sober houses in Meetinghouse Hill. But advocates for sober houses, citing laws that protect disabled people, say this would amount to discrimination.
"That's kind of the stereotypical fears and prejudices that people have against people who are in recovery," said Andrew Tine, an attorney who represents the operators of about 20 sober houses across the state.
Tine says sober homes meet a critical need during an opioid epidemic, particularly given shortages in the housing market. The services available vary widely at different sober homes, but at the most basic level, they are meant to provide a drug-free environment and affordable housing for people trying to stay sober.
"Sober houses practice abstinence, and they usually require urine drug testing and they have curfews and rules in place," Tine said. "So it's a structure and living environment that promotes their well-being and tries to transition them back into everyday life, where they can support themselves."
But do neighbors have grounds for rejecting the clustering of sober houses in a single area? Tine says no.
"That would be like saying, 'I don’t mind one house on my neighborhood with minorities -- I just don't want five.' "
Troy Clarkson, outgoing head of MASH, pushes back on the premise that the houses are harmful to neighborhoods.
“Properties that operate as sober houses can be better neighbors than if they were otherwise occupied,” he said, “because the people in those houses are people that are trying to get well, and they’re people that are living by a set of rules and standards in those sober houses.”
A Holding Pattern
Sober houses are not regulated by the state, and neighbors' efforts to block them are nothing new. These disputes can land cities and sober home operators (including Tine's cases in Worcester, Fitchburg, Methuen and Fall River) in court.
Boston officials note the phrase "sober house" doesn't appear in the zoning code, which is to say there are no specific rules about how they can operate. Inspectors say they can issue violations when sober houses run afoul of their zoning designation. In a sober house zoned as a single-family dwelling, for example, violations can include locks on bedroom doors and restricted access to common spaces.
But advocates for sober houses argue that they're exempt from certain zoning requirements. Where cities can regulate the number of unrelated people living in a single-family, sober house advocates say this doesn't apply to them because the residents are disabled.
The holding pattern between sober houses and cities like Boston could be about to break: a Superior Court judge recently decided in favor of the city of Fitchburg in its bid to require sober houses to install sprinkler systems. One sober house operator tells WBUR this requirement and others are already being used by municipalities to shut down sober houses, and with the Fitchburg ruling, the practice could become widespread.
Sober house attorney Tine says some federal cases have gone in favor of sober homes. And with local cases headed to higher courts, he says case law on the status of sober houses could soon be settled in Massachusetts.
The outcome of these cases could ultimately trickle down to Joseph Pizziferri, the man behind the sober house at 16 Potosi and connected to the LLC that bought the Richie house at 29 Percival.
Pizziferri declined WBUR's request for an interview. Reached by phone, however, he says he’s trying to do the right thing for people struggling with addiction. All of his sober houses are certified with MASH, and residents must pass regular drug screenings in order to stay there, according to a website for the houses, which are named Faith House #1 through #7.
Pizziferri complained that he's getting mixed messages from the city: On the one hand there’s Mayor Marty Walsh’s strong public commitment to fighting addiction, and on the other hand, building inspectors pushing back on plans to open new sober houses in the neighborhoods.
'It’s Just So Difficult To Oversee'
As the neighbors gathered at the Mather School were about to find out, city inspectors have limited leverage over sober houses — as long as they conform with zoning rules — though officials can exert pressure on operators to consider neighbors' concerns.
Boston’s chief building inspector, William "Buddy" Christopher, stood before the crowd in Meetinghouse Hill with a smile.
“I come to you bearing really good news,” Christopher said, adding that he met with Pizziferri about the sober house in the works. "And he has committed to us he is not going ahead with this project. ... We explained to them that this is just not the way we do things.”
Some of the neighbors clapped, but others bristled at the news, asking what happens to the Pizziferri properties now. They want the city to stop more sober homes from opening in their neighborhood.
Now, Christopher said, he’s planning to organize a meeting between the residents of Meetinghouse Hill and Pizziferri, as well as representatives from the sober house alliance.
City Councilor Frank Baker, whose district includes Meetinghouse Hill, said he'd like for the city to have a greater ability to regulate sober houses.
“The issue with it is it’s just so difficult to oversee," Baker said, adding that the clustering of sober houses is “absolutely” a problem in certain areas.
“It doesn’t build the community,” he said.
As for the building inspector: Asked if he had a wish list regarding new regulations for sober housing — like a limit on the number sited within a certain area, and a registry that requires sober houses to be identified — Christopher said his only wish is that the opioid epidemic would come to an end.
Dorchester Reporter editor Jennifer Smith contributed reporting. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the organizations share resources to collaborate on stories. WBUR’s Simón Rios is currently working from the Reporter newsroom.
This segment aired on February 20, 2019.