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City Restrictions on Sober Living Homes Upheld

» Posted November 15, 2021News

For the past several years, Costa Mesa’s overt attempts to regulate sober living homes have been challenged by sober living operators in both state and federal court.  Sober living homes have tried to fend off any and all restrictions on where and how they can operate by arguing that addicts in recovery are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.  In lawsuits, the City counterargued that their laws are to protect the entire community from operators of unlicensed facilities which expose residents to dangerous conditions and create public nuisance concerns. In September 2021, the Federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld lower court rulings and agreed that Costa Mesa’s sober living ordinances are not discriminatory and do not violate the Fair Housing Act. This is a major victory for the City and for the future regulation of these homes state-wide.

During the last decade, the number of sober living homes in Costa Mesa, and in many other cities, has exploded. Sober living homes are homes used by people recovering from substance abuse, which serves as an interim environment between rehabilitation and their future lives.  Sober Living Homes are often located in single-family residences and are occupied in a cooperative living arrangement for people recovering from addiction supporting one another in their sobriety. 

In 2014, Costa Mesa began to enact ordinances as an attempt to protect both the residents in these homes and others in the community by regulating unlicensed operators to prevent overcrowding, establish minimum standards, and require that group home operators and employees not have serious recent criminal convictions. These laws were challenged in court by sober living operators.

Costa Mesa argued that the purpose of its zoning and business regulations is to ensure that group homes are actually entitled to the accommodations provided under the City’s Municipal Code and are not simply skirting the City’s boarding house regulations.  The City also argues that the regulations are intended to limit secondary impacts of group homes by reducing noise and traffic, preserving safety and providing adequate off-street parking. 

Costa Mesa’s regulations for group homes, including sober living homes, and state licensed alcohol or drug abuse recovery or treatment facilities, are found in Chapters XV and XVI of Title 13 (Zoning) and Article 23 of Title 9 (Licenses and Business Regulations) of the Costa Mesa Municipal Code.  The general requirements are as follows:

1. Group homes, including sober living homes, with 6 or fewer residents, plus one house manager are allowed to locate in all residential zones with a special use permit, which requires:

  • A public hearing in front of the Development Services Director prior to issuance.
  • Notice to all residents and property owners within 500 feet.
  • Written rules and regulations.
  • Relapse policy.
  • Manager must be present 24-hours a day.
  • Garage and driveway must remain available for parking.
  • Residents must park on site or within 400 feet.
  • Compliance with all applicable provisions of the California Vehicle Code, such as those related to parking, stopping and licensure.
  • No care and supervision is allowed.
  • Full compliance with building and zoning codes.
  • If a resident is evicted, operators must notify the resident’s emergency contact and provide transportation to the resident’s permanent address.
  • If the resident has no home to return to or otherwise refuses transportation home, the operator must provide transportation to another facility if a bed is available.

2. Sober living homes also require: 

  • a. 650-foot separation from another sober living home or state licensed alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment facilities.
  • Occupants must be enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
  • No use of alcohol or non-prescription drugs – violators must be evicted.
  • Limits on the number of occupants subject to sex offender registration.
  • A good neighbor policy that directs occupants to be considerate of neighbors, including refraining from engaging in excessively loud, profane or obnoxious behavior that would unduly interfere with neighbor’s use and enjoyment of their properties.
  • No detoxification, counseling sessions or treatment or recovery planning allowed.

With this major legal victory, expect to see more cities join Costa Mesa in the regulation of sober living homes in the future.