Residents and local officials excoriated the owner of several “sober” group homes during an emotional meeting at the Mather School on Tuesday night in which the property owners — Joseph Pizziferri Jr. and his son, Joseph Pizziferri III — pledged to move forward with their plans to operate a group home at 29 Percival St.
The Dorchester house has been the subject of a dispute since last year, when 29 Percival sold and then quickly traded hands to the Pizziferris, who operate seven sober homes in the Dorchester and Roxbury area, including one just two houses away from 29 Percival St. The Pizziferris also own the houses at 26 and 28 Percival St.
In the midst of an opioid epidemic, residents told the Pizziferris they fully understand the need for sober homes and praised their mission. But the idea of two out of the tight-knit street's 11 homes becoming sober homes and housing 15 or more residents each, without the owner reaching out to any neighbors to inform them, felt unsettling, the neighbors said.
“When you made 16 a sober home, nobody knew,” said Lisa Villaroel. "We accepted it because that was it, that was a sober home. We accepted it, and we are for the sober homes. We are not against it, but what we are not for is when you are not transparent and you do that things that you have done … you have not been transparent to the community.”
The initial outcry from neighbors about the big Victorian house on Percival Street brought the city's Inspectional Services to investigate any potential zoning violations. Two of the top officials in the city of Boston have been engaged in hands-on talks with neighbors and the Pizziferis since then, in an effort to resolve the dispute.
One of those officials — Inspectional Services Department Commissioner William Christopher — was at Tuesday’s meeting and at first spoke kindly of the Pizziferris. They came into his office willingly and made changes to the house so that it better reflected the single-family zoning for which it was intended, Christopher said. They assured Christopher they would not be moving forward with plans to make it a sober home.
That congeniality took a sharp turn when the elder Pizziferri revealed that he did in fact intend to convert 29 Percival into a sober home for 15 women. It has already been certified under the Faith House group that the Pizziferris manage, though it has not yet opened.
“I really feel betrayed,” Christopher said, as outrage bubbled in the room. “Joe, you told me at the onset of things, then I came to this community and very proudly represented you and your family that you were going to do the right thing. I am pretty upset at the dealings that you’re going to have with the city, because your word no longer means anything to me.”
Rochelle Nwosu, who lives between 16 Potosi and 29 Percival, said, “I want to cry. That’s how strongly I feel about this situation.”
With her young child at her knees and her hand on her pregnant midriff, Nwosu told Pizziferri, “I had faith in you, thought you were going to say, ‘You know what? I’ve tapped out on Potosi, let me just sell Percival’ and make money on it, do whatever you need to do — fix it up, make it fancy, do whatever’s happening all over Dorchester — but I honestly did not expect to come here tonight to hear you say that you were going to move forward with that. I am heartbroken.”
Representatives from the Massachusetts Alliance of Sober Housing (MASH) and the Recovery Homes Collaborative explained the sober homes are a protected category in part because of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“You can’t subject a sober home to a different standard than you would anybody else in your neighborhood,” said Larissa Matzek of MASH.
City Councilor Frank Baker acknowledged the voluntary sober home certification system has done a lot of good in bringing sober homes into the light. But, Baker added, the way these homes were purchased and transformed “looks shady.”
Denise Williams, a current resident of the Potosi sober house, said the home “saved my life.” If she had stayed at her mother’s house, she said, “I would have continued to use.”
She defended other residents of the house and emphasized they all have to stay clean while living there.
Sheila Dillon, Boston's housing chief, was among those visibly frustrated by the meeting’s turn. The state has standards for how densely rooming houses can be sited, she pointed out, so the state could, in theory, make density a condition of its voluntary certification process for sober homes.
Pizziferri III said the density is intentional, “so there is that community, so there is that camaraderie.” He called it “intimidating” to go door-to-door to introduce himself.
“As far as community involvement, we’ve been in this community six years and no one’s ever called my phone to say, ‘Hello,’ ” he said.
Christopher asked the Pizziferris to put off converting the house for a month until the next meeting, but Pizziferri Jr. said that would be a financial burden, adding, “if everyone wants to pass the hat and make a donation,” to cover his mortgage.
Christopher, Dillon, Baker and state Rep. Liz Miranda huddled outside the room briefly to discuss next steps.
“The issue of sober homes has to be addressed at the state level,” Miranda said on her return, adding she will look into legislative options.
The burden on Roxbury and Dorchester in this area is immense, Miranda said, ticking off streets where multiple houses flipped to sober homes often without telling neighbors.
“This community has so many different other concerns, that it’s constantly like we’re dealing with immigration, crime. We’re dealing with not affordable housing, sober homes. It’s constant," she said." It’s so constant I actually feel ill most of the time not knowing what to do.”