MANCHESTER — Officials say they are “actively enforcing” city zoning ordinances and safety codes in an attempt to regulate about 50 to 60 sober living houses, but more help is needed at the state level.
“I think some of the most significant barriers (in terms of enforcement) is the lack of any type of state regulations,” city planner Leon LaFreniere told members of the Aldermanic Committee on Administration Tuesday.
Congregate housing is defined in the Manchester zoning ordinance as: “Multifamily housing or other dwelling units serving individuals who require on-site services that support independent living, including, at a minimum, communal dining facilities.”
The facilities rent rooms to people recovering from addiction, with the goal of staying clean and finding community support.
New Hampshire lawmakers are considering a bill to give towns more oversight over sober living facilities. Senate Bill 633 seeks to create a voluntary registration and certification program for recovery facilities in New Hampshire.
Alderman Will Stewart of Ward 2 testified at a hearing in Concord recently on the bill, saying it didn’t do enough to regulate these facilities and asking that it be amended to make such a registration program mandatory, and to ensure that any such facility comply with all local zoning regulations.
“There are two recovery houses in Ward 2 that have popped up without oversight by out-of-state entities,” Stewart said at that hearing. “Recovery houses in New Hampshire provide a good business opportunity due to the high addiction rates in the state. Having zero regulations leads to bad operators taking advantage of people and neighborhoods.”
Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan, has said in Manchester there could be 50 to 60 unregulated sober living facilities, some without proper exits or fire or carbon monoxide alarms.
On Tuesday, city solicitor Emily Rice discussed several avenues staff are pursuing to address these homes.
“We have very little regulation at the state level,” said Rice. “There is voluntary registration under state law, but I think everybody agrees that has not had the desired results.”
Rice recommended the city look at the issue of congregate housing during upcoming zoning ordinance rewrites, slated to kick off after a new master plan for the city is adopted sometime before the end of the year.
Rice said the city is also seeking better information from the state Department of Corrections regarding local properties operating as sober homes, and will look to perform outreach with potential future operators of these facilities.
Alderman Tony Sapienza of Ward 5 asked Rice and LaFreniere if both their departments were doing “all they can” to enforce current ordinances, “pulling every lever.”
“This is going to be a process; it’s going to take some time, but we are doing all we can regarding enforcement activities,” said LaFreniere. “Selecting first those properties that are most readily accessible to us for those enforcement actions, knowing some of these properties are a little more challenging to deal with.”
“I would recommend any neighbors who believe there is a sober living home in their neighborhood, that they reach out” and let city officials know, Rice said.
Last week, the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment voted unanimously to deny a variance request from a company operating a sober house at 70 Russell St.
City aldermen agreed to continue the conversation on congregate housing at the committee’s next meeting, sometime in March.