This article, originally published by Al Zucaro on BocaWatch.org, is preserved for historical purposes by Massive Impressions Online Marketing in Boca Raton.
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This is something that can happen to any of our neighborhoods without notice
I am a Boca resident living in the Spanish River/Yamato neighborhood east of the airport. My family and I moved here about 20 years ago mainly because we saw Boca as maintaining a high quality of life not always seen in other neighboring south Florida communities. My neighbors and I have fought hard over the years to maintain this quality of life. While there have been wins and losses, for the most part, we have been able to keep our corner of Boca a safe place for our families.
That all changed towards the end of 2016 when an unregistered drug rehab/sober home moved into our neighborhood. The house owner (who had bought the house only a year and a half prior) renovated a 3-bedroom house under the cover of night and away from the eyes of code enforcement into an 8-bedroom eyesore. Soon he leased the house (zoned as single family in a single family neighborhood) to the new business tenant, a drug rehab/sober home. This was done without any notice to the city, and in violation of existing city codes and ordinances.
As you can imagine, the neighborhood was devastated. We went from being a safe quiet neighborhood where kids are free to ride their bikes in the street, to a neighborhood under siege from drug and alcohol sober home residents.
As we had done in the past for other issues threatening our area, we went into action contacting code enforcement, city, county and state officials, as well as partnering with our local police. We thought for sure the injustice that had afflicted our neighborhood would be temporary. What my neighbors and I didn’t know at the time, but soon found out, was that our sober home invasion was part of a much larger Palm Beach County epidemic far worse than we could have imagined.
Soon we started paying much more attention to the news reports out of Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, and other South Florida communities which were being deluged with 10, 20, 30 or even more homes in a single neighborhood. News reports of drug overdose deaths and needles being found in once quiet neighborhoods was shocking. Surely these sober homes were required to be in areas properly zoned for such a place. Come to find out, 10 years ago Boca Raton did have an ordinance to have sober homes zoned for areas with medical facilities or hospitals, which appeared to be common sense for people suffering from addictions who might need medical attention. A lawsuit brought against the city would soon change that. Citizens would no longer have the right to live free from of sober homes in a non-hospital/medical facility neighborhood.
Another city ordinance related to group homes does still exist. Code of Ordinance Section 28-1304 prohibits any “community residential home”, or group home, from being within 1000 ft. of another group home. In this way, neighborhoods could maintain some semblance of their residential integrity. Any new group home is also required to notify the city manager in writing of the intent to use the residence as a group home prior to the occupancy of the home. In our neighborhood, the above 1000 ft. restriction should exist per this ordinance. Another group home is located directly across from the sober home on our street. In addition, this sober home was moved into the neighborhood without any notification to the city, and still exists there today.
The sober home business and lawyer has now applied for “reasonable accommodation” with the City of Boca Raton. This is in short an application to operate as a sober home business in a single family neighborhood with more than 3 unrelated people in the same residence. If the reasonable accommodation request is granted, this will set a dangerous precedent within our city. Not only one, but multiple variations of sober homes would be allowed to exist on any given street in our city.
The sad truth is that the average decent citizen has little to no rights when it comes to keeping our families and neighbors safe from sober homes. The Federal Government has stacked the deck against the average citizen. The Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Fair Housing Act has classified sober home residents as a protected class and giving them same federal protection as others with disabilities. The problem is that they are not the same. Residents of sober homes could be law abiding citizens, or they could be convicted felons or child molesters but the residents would never know due to these protections. Medical laws prevent anyone from identifying who is there at any given time and since these “transitional houses” act like drug rehab hotels, residents could completely turn over in a few weeks’ time.
What does the lawsuit brought against the resident of Boca Raton mean for our neighborhoods? It means that sober homes can reside anywhere and next to anyone where they can buy or rent a house.
During these two months my neighbors and I have endured threatening stares from the house residents, constant offensive and foul language, and open conversations about hard drugs and their benefits. Our street has seen a large increase in traffic from the multiple trips the sober home van makes all hours of the day and night. While this is a sober home for adult males, woman have even been seen entering the house both day and night. This is all bad enough, but ultimately what every neighbor fears is the threat of the increased crime that so many other south Florida neighborhoods have experienced since the sober home invasion started only a few years back. Many once safe streets are no more and the character of quiet safe neighborhoods like ours are changed forever.
The reality is that this can happen to any one of us. Sober homes are next to million dollar mansions on the intracoastal and in the worst neighborhoods in south florida and once they’re there, the Federal Government will make sure that their right to live in your neighborhood is well protected.
The fight is far from done but we all are committed to trying to return our neighborhood to a safe family environment. We were completely unaware of the magnitude of this problem before this started for us. It is important for everyone reading this to know that this is something that can happen to any of us without notice. While decent citizens have been stripped of many of our rights when it comes to this issue, the recent Department of Justice guidelines which came out late in 2016, and the existing City of Boca Raton ordinances limiting the concentration of group homes gives some hope. We need the help of all our city, county and state officials, though, to save our neighborhoods.
Please help prevent this from happening in your neighborhood by contacting City Council members and demanding that ordinances relating to group homes be vigorously enforced starting immediately.