Halfway Houses Sue to Stay 

Residents want rehab homes out

click to enlarge Allen Andersen's first Oxford House, in Riverton - ERIK DAENITZ
  • Erik Daenitz
  • Allen Andersen's first Oxford House, in Riverton

In one three-month period in 2000, Jodie Caffery went from being a happy stay-at-home mom, active in her LDS ward, to becoming a hardcore meth user. It was the perfect storm of calamities in her life: Both her parents died, and she underwent a traumatic divorce.

“I was introduced to meth 11 years ago,” Caffery says. “Then I went from that to coke, crack, pills and alcohol … heroin—I did it all. I just wanted to stay numb.” In 2010, she spent more than six months in county jail for possession. During that time, she completed a correctional treatment program and was told that there was a room for her at a Salt Lake City Oxford House, a resident-chartered sober house that’s part of a national network of recovery houses.

Less than two weeks after she moved into the Glendale neighborhood house in May 2011, however, Caffery was told that she had to move out. Salt Lake City had told the owners of the house they were out of compliance with city code. After finding her “safe zone,” Caffrey says, she was facing life on the streets again.

A Salt Lake City ordinance forbids more than three unrelated individuals from living in the same single-family home. It’s a common ordinance in many cities seeking to maintain consistency in single-family-home neighborhoods. But the federal Fair Housing Act requires cities to give an exemption to houses supporting disabled individuals—including recovering addicts.

Despite that protection, two of Utah’s five Oxford Houses have been challenged by local ordinances, and in return, the owner, Allen Andersen, has sued both Salt Lake City and Riverton, as well as Salt Lake County and the state, in federal court for damages resulting from the zoning battles.

“Opening a halfway house is like trying to open a landfill,” says Ted McBride, Andersen’s attorney. “Nobody wants one in their backyard, even if it is protected.”

McBride says that when they sued Riverton, the city settled with them. Regardless, he’s pressing the suit against the other parties to prevent other cities from getting rid of the federally protected houses.

The Oxford House model provides recovering addicts with group-living homes where they support each other’s recovery. Since 1975, the program has spread to more than 1,000 homes across the country. In every Oxford House, enough members rent a home to try to  keep costs under $100 per renter, and each home operates democratically—voting on living conditions and ejecting members who relapse back into drugs and alcohol. It’s a model that has also received the endorsement of DePaul University, which, in 2001, concluded a 10-year study that found the program was more effective than those simply attending 12-step programs, and that 69 percent of residents left Oxford Houses with positive experiences.

For Andersen, the program’s success isn’t just a statistic—it’s worked for him. In 2006, Andersen turned to alcohol after a painful divorce. The former member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says he was 32 when he took his first drink, but for the next two years, he struggled heavily with alcoholism. When he discovered the Oxford House model, he decided to open the first Utah branch in his own Riverton home in 2009. Since then, his homes have helped more than 200 individuals recover.

“When someone comes to the house and begins to recover, it’s like they play the country song backward” Andersen deadpans. “They get their wife back, they get their job back, the dog comes home …”

But not everyone sings the same tune as Andersen.

 “I think citizens can say that’s a good idea, but not in my backyard,” says Dave Hogue, a Riverton resident who challenged Andersen’s first Oxford House. He was among a contingent of citizens who pushed city government and the county to actively pursue criminal charges against Andersen in 2010. The city later dropped its charges with prejudice and settled with Andersen.

“I’ve heard the argument that the [Oxford Houses] help people assimilate into the community and get back into society,” Hogue says “That’s bullcrap. It’s about the rights of people that live around them.” Hogue says he’s fought other zoning battles, from keeping Walmart out to challenging other high-density housing, but the Oxford Houses appeared without any city approval or warning. Now, he says, he and his neighbors live near as many as a dozen recovering drug addicts, who live in a home in a cul-de-sac of a residential neighborhood.

Randy Sorensen, chair of the Glendale Community Council, was glad to see the two Oxford Houses in his neighborhood vacated because of the city’s actions, since his neighborhood already has four halfway houses and a new 300-bed correctional facility that will be built by 2012.

“The [Oxford Houses] just snuck in there,” Sorensen says. “We seem to be a dumping ground for halfway houses on the west side, and we’re a little tired of it.”

It’s because those houses had to close, however, that McBride is suing Salt Lake City. Andersen argues that city enforcement officers had threatened criminal action and told him that he could apply for an exemption, but that he wouldn’t be approved. As a result, he relocated a men’s house but was unable to obtain a new house for Caffery and several other residents at the female house.

Lynn Pace with the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office, however, says Andersen’s attorney seemed to file a lawsuit in the midst of negotiations. “We’re not enforcing this,” Pace says he told McBride. “Just get us some information and we’ll get the accommodation in writing.” Instead of continuing the conversation, Pace says, McBride sued.

But by that time, Andersen says, the damage had been done. He says the alleged threat of possible criminal charges from a city zoning officer forced him to vacate the female house on May 12, 2011, as well as relocate tenants of an adjacent men’s house. Pace says that he can't speak for the zoning officer, but is skeptical of a threat of criminal charges. “The city has not and the city would not seek criminal enforcement of zoning violations,” Pace says. “We just don't do that.”

McBride says he hopes their suit will collect damages for their now endangered clients, such as Caffery, and will obtain a federal injunction to prevent the city from using the ordinance against them in the future.

Caffery feels blessed that a woman in her former LDS ward is letting her stay in a spare room now. But she still feels invested in the Oxford House, since she paid affordable rent there and was surrounded by people fighting their way back to normalcy, just like her.

“I’ve been to rehabs and it’s great, but it’s like somebody else is doing it [for you],” Caffery says, adding that the Oxford House was different. “This was like I get to be a part of society again; I get to be a real person.” 

Twitter: @EricSPeterson

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