ACLU of Florida Asks Court to Strike Down Ban on Residential Housing for Recovering Addicts

March 7, 2003

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

WEST PALM BEACH, FL--Saying that a law here blatantly discriminates against people in addiction recovery, the Palm Beach Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a lawsuit in federal district court challenging a zoning ordinance that effectively bans former substance abusers from living in the city's residential areas.

The case, Jeffrey O. et al. v. City of Boca Raton, was filed on behalf of two housing providers, Boca House and Awakenings, which operate rental units for individuals recovering from substance addiction so they can live in an alcohol and drug-free environment. Also named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are seven recovering substance abusers. 

"One of the most important aspects of treatment and recovery for many former addicts is avoiding relapse by living in a healthy, functional environment surrounded by others who are not abusing alcohol or drugs," said James Green, an ACLU cooperating attorney from West Palm Beach. "Rather than supporting their efforts to stay sober and become productive members of society, the city is evicting recovering alcoholics and addicts from their homes in residential neighborhoods and forcing them to live in isolated business and warehouse districts where such a support system is virtually non-existent." 

At issue is a Boca Raton ordinance that expands the definition of treatment facilities in such a way that bans housing for people in recovery in the city's residential areas and restricts such housing to business areas zoned for medical and hospital use. The ordinance also prohibits such residences from being located within 1,000 feet of each other. 

According to the ACLU, the law affects more than 12 so-called "sober houses" such as Boca House and Awakenings, where recovering addicts live together in residential neighborhoods for mutual support.

The Boca Raton City Commission passed the ordinance in May 2002 in response to mounting public pressure from residents to remove the drug and alcohol recovery housing from residential neighborhoods. The housing providers and the residents who live there argue the ordinance was "motivated by public prejudice against persons in recovery." At a recent public hearing adopting the ordinance, one person called the facilities "ghettos" that attract "pedophiles, murderers, God knows what?."

"The Boca Raton City Commission enacted the ordinance based on the stereotypes and generalized fears about people in recovery for addiction," Green said. "Elected officials have a duty not to allow prejudices of the majority to influence their decision making process, but instead they chose to pass a discriminatory law that excludes recovering alcoholics and addicts from residential areas simply because the ban has public support."

The complaint charges the city with violations of the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act - two federal laws that prohibit discrimination against persons with disabilities. The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to prevent the city from evicting the residents. 

Gerry S. Gibson, Gabriel E. Nieto and Ed Lombard of the law firm of Steel Hector & Davis LLP are handling the case for the ACLU. Gibson is a partner with Steel Hector & Davis LLP in West Palm Beach, Nieto is a partner and Lombard is an associate in the firm's Miami office. Green serves as the Legal Panel Chair for the ACLU of Florida's Palm Beach Chapter. 

The complaint is available online at http://www.aclufl.org/bocahousecomplaint.html

Statistics image