Concern voiced over plan for new requirements for N.H. sober houses

  • Lance Alonardo stands for a portrait outside the Phoenix House Sober Living Center at Cornerstone in Northfield on Monday, June 29, 2015. Alonardo lived at Cornerstone for about a year after participating in a residential treatment program at the former Phoenix House Community Residence in Franklin. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor file

  • Inspirational art is seen in an office at Bonfire Recovery Services, a sober living house for men in Dover, on Monday, May 18, 2015. ELIZABETH FRANTZ

Monitor staff
Published: 7/9/2018 8:44:33 PM

For years, worries of fraudulent sober living homes have riled New Hampshire’s recovery community. Amid national examples of scams and bogus facilities, the state’s lax oversight has created headaches for law enforcement and legitimate sober home managers alike.

Now, a new state plan to fight back by introducing licensing requirements is also getting pushback.

At a public hearing Monday, several dozen representatives of sober homes voiced discomfort with a proposed rule change by the Department of Health and Human Services that would mandate the licenses for sober homes that meet a certain threshold of services.

Under the rule, the homes, which provide substance-free environments for those moving through recovery, would be separated into levels. Levels one and two would comprise those with unpaid managers or no managers at all; those would be exempt from licensing requirements. Level three homes – those with paid staff, clinical treatment services and drug testing – would need to be licensed.

The rules were presented as a way to combat fraud in the industry and to bring sober homes into the fold with residential treatment facilities.

But officials at sober living facilities across the state argued that the extra red tape would only hamper the efforts of legitimate operations, while pushing more off the grid.

“These regulations will drive sober living operators from being more structured and regulated partners – which honestly aren’t the ones that are the problems – into the other two tiers,” said Eric Spofford, CEO of Granite Recovery Centers, which operates homes across the state.

The debate comes as organizations have sought to expand sober living facilities to new corners of the state, often with great difficulty. Backers of the homes, which number around 30 around the state, have to navigate a tangled web of local zoning board rules, code requirements and backlash from skeptical neighbors. One after another Monday, recovery organizers recounted uphill battles in which residents warned of an influx of sex offenders and crime.

“Opening sober livings, generally, already in this state is incredibly difficult,” Spofford said. “I’ve fought umpteen zoning boards and planning boards, and I’ve gone to Superior Court on their housing laws, and I’ve had hysterical maniac neighbors,” he said.

Creating new licensing requirements would add to that burden, organization officials argued. And it could set off unwelcome side effects for zoning, they said. For those homes that obtain licenses, towns and cities may be inclined to push them into specific zones for drug treatment and recovery – treating them as facilities and not homes, as they want.

That could run counter to the ethos behind sober living, some said. Meanwhile, many homes could opt to avoid hiring paid supervisors, instead staying under the radar at levels one and two, they warned.

“There’s already a housing crisis in the state of New Hampshire in major cities where a lot of these sober living houses happen, so there’s going to be even more shady practices (being) done in this industry,” said Ed McDonough, CEO of Gatehouse Treatment, which operates homes in New Hampshire and Florida.

Instead, many in the room pressed for an alternative: national standards. The National Alliance for Recovery Residences has operated a non-binding certification program of its own, affiliating with facilities in 26 states including New Hampshire. The state should defer to that alliance, not the department, organizers said.

Melissa St. Cyr, the chief legal officer at the department, said she sees it differently. The concerns are reasonable, she said at the hearing, but the rules change was not meant to be a transformative overhaul – rather a reorganization that would bring sober living into the department’s purview. And she said that the levels set within the rules were meant to follow the NARR standards.

“The only facilities that will fall under licensure are those who have a sober living component that’s not just sober living – it is supervised – and have the clinical component together,” she said. “Which is essentially like a residential treatment rehab.”

Still, to many in the room, the change is a new challenge to bear.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to drive places out of business,” said Andrew West, owner of Bonfire Recovery in Dover. “And for folks looking for services – as an owner, my costs are going to go up.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)
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