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Volume 7, Issue 76  |  September 23, 2022


Residents, local officials raise concerns, need for better regulation on group residential homes at community meeting

By SARA HALL

Group residential homes were discussed for more than two hours at a community meeting this week, as local officials and residents expressed frustration over a lack of regulation, potential neighborhood concerns and efforts moving forward. 

More than 100 people packed into the community room at the Newport Beach Civic Center on Monday (April 4) for the forum.

Representatives of the California Department of Social Services discussed the state’s licensing and oversight of social rehabilitation facilities. City, county and state representatives also shared updates on current efforts related to group residential uses.

The packed room was evidence that it’s a hot topic in the community, pointed out Councilmember Joy Brenner. Following up from an October 11 community meeting on the same issue, she said they made a concerted effort to get the state representatives involved. 

“We can’t do this at just the city level, we have to have the cooperation of the higher-level electeds and the state agencies,” Brenner said, listing the various representatives in attendance at Monday’s meeting. “We can’t do this alone, as just Newport Beach.”

They’ve been focusing on coordinating with other cities, primarily other coastal cities where this issue is prevalent, to work on solutions from a broader range, she said. 

Diving into the issue after the October meeting, it’s become apparent that there’s a lot of complexity at the state level, added Councilmember Diane Dixon. 

On Monday, Marina Stanic, manager of the DSS Orange County regional office, and Shelly Grace assistant branch chief of the Field Services Unit Division, provided an overview of the department and an introduction into the Community Care Licensing Division. They also pointed out the differences between the facilities their department oversees and others not regulated by DSS.

Both Stanic and Grace emphasized that they also live in the community.

“We’re your neighbors,” Grace said. “Your concerns are our concerns. We live here too.”

With so much resident concern over the issue, both Brenner and Dixon confirmed that this is not the last meeting on the topic. They plan on hosting more and are pushing to get attendance from representatives from the Department of Health Care Services.

Residents local officials speakers

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Photo by Amy Senk

Residents line up to ask state officials questions about residential group homes at a community meeting on Monday

A lot of Monday’s discussion revolved around how DSS is implementing regulations approved by the state over the last several years. 

“If we don’t like the elements of the program they are implementing, we need to work on legislative solutions,” Dixon said. 

If there are any community concerns, the local office is contacted and the staff will investigate, Grace said. However, the investigation, and any potential enforcement, can only go as far as the current law allows, she pointed out. 

“We need laws to help,” Grace said. “We can only do our jobs (within) what the law is.”

State and federal laws require that residential care facilities that serve six or fewer residents be considered a residential use of property, explained City Attorney Aaron Harp.

Any regulation the city places on residential dwelling units has to apply equally to all types of homes, whether it’s a residential care facility or a single-family home, he said. For example, they can’t require residential care facilities specifically to provide more parking spaces. 

That’s a state law for six or fewer facilities, he added. 

There was also a lot of emphasis from the DSS officials that sober living homes are not the same as the facilities that DSS licenses and regulates. 

Stanic also went over how to navigate the department’s website, including how to search for facilities online using an address/ZIP Code or city name. In Newport Beach, there is one already licensed adult residential facility on Fullerton Avenue, and four pending social rehabilitation facilities, all within the 92660 ZIP Code.

There are different types of facilities, Grace noted, those under discussion on Monday were mostly the social rehabilitation treatment facilities. They are high-end, typically ranging from $25,000 to $30,000 a month, and are time-limited.

“It’s for a little extra help while they are stepping down from hospitalization situations,” Grace said. 

These facilities offer counseling and monitor the residents, but there is no medical care, she emphasized. 

These are different than sober living houses, both Grace and Stanic emphasized. 

“Our facilities are usually confused with sober living facilities,” Stanic said. “The concerns that the neighbors have are with the experience with some of those type of facilities.”

Sober homes are often structured around 12-step programs or other recovery methodologies and serve as a transitional environment into mainstream society, Stanic explained.

There is no formal monitoring of the sober living houses that aren’t affiliated/certified by a coalition, association, or network. Because of this, it’s impossible to provide an exact number of sober living homes, Stanic said.

“We don’t say that to scare you, we just want you to know the difference,” Grace added. 

There is no formal regulation or enforcement agency over them, she said. 

“They can get a certification, but there is nobody who oversees them. Period,” Grace said. “There are many people in government who would like to see them…we would love to see those regulated.”

They share many of the community concerns, Grace said, reiterating that they are also residents and deal with many of the same issues.

Many of the attendees raised concerns or asked questions during the public comment period. 

Speakers were primarily concerned that the “profit motivated” facilities aren’t regulated, that there’s no cap or distancing requirements (including from schools or buildings with kids), and that the license is granted in perpetuity. Some questioned how they reject or revoke a license, or if they can evict someone from living in one of the licensed homes. 

As one resident noted, they don’t oppose people getting help to get sober or off the street, but there is a safety risk to the community if they’re allowed to come and go openly, particularly if they’re struggling with mental health issues. 

It’s scary, several residents agreed. 

Some speakers also raised concerns about how the facility impacts the local community in terms of traffic, parking and congestion. 

It’s critical for residents that on any single residential block there could be a DSS facility and also a sober living home, Dixon said, echoing comments from a public speaker. 

They can’t regulate at the city level, but they can advocate at the state level for more control over the matter, Dixon said. And these community meetings will help them determine what issues to focus on and what needs to be done.

“Where does state law need to be fixed to protect our neighborhoods…without discriminating against people who live in the residential facilities, (and) to enhance the safety (in the community),” Dixon said. “It’s a tough challenge.”

That’s why we are inviting the representatives to the community meetings and the city is working with the county to impress upon the state to pass laws to allow local regulation, Brenner added. 

“We want to regulate those sober living homes too,” Brenner said. 

Residents local officials Foley

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Photo by Amy Senk

OC Supervisor Katrina Foley speaks at a community meeting on Monday

Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said she’s advocated for regulatory reforms to protect patients and neighborhoods. The facilities are currently run under a “profit-mill style” model, she added. The operators often aren’t focused on recovery or addiction treatment, but profiteering, Foley said.

She’s steadfast in support for reform at the state level to allow for local control, she added. There are good models of how it can be done, including neighboring Costa Mesa’s ordinance, which was upheld in the court of appeals and has been adopted by the county.

“I think we can do it,” Foley said.

They need to create an ordinance that will be legally defensible and can be a model for other cities, she said.

Foley described how the neighborhood she lives in has changed over the years. When she bought her home, it was full of families. Now, she lives across the street from a “detox center” and crime has increased, including several break-ins at her own home.

“So I get it,” she said. “It’s important to me, it’s a priority to me.”

They keep proposing legislation, but the industry keeps stopping the bills, Foley said. 

“It’s important that you keep speaking up,” she said. “You have to keep persisting.”

Public testimony will help develop evidence on the record about the issues community members are facing, Foley explained. 

There have been years of failed legislation, added Claire Conlon, chief of staff for Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris. 

There needs to be lots of opportunities for mental health and substance abuse treatment recovery options, Conlon said. However, there is also too much “churn,” abuse of patients, and bad operators that cause issues for the community and patients to relapse. The law also needs to provide a mechanism for attorneys to go after bad actors, she said.

Part of the problem is that required insurance levels weren’t adequate, Conlon said. She mentioned AB 1158, which passed last year and went into effect in January, requires a licensee operating an alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment facility and serving more than six residents to maintain specified insurance coverages.

They’re now working on AB 2087, Conlon said. 

They want to ensure that, even in the six and under homes, if an individual can’t possess their own medication, they should be transferred to a higher-level facility. The person’s care should match their needs, Conlon said.

“This law would make it very clear that whether it’s a social rehabilitation facility, sober living home…basically any type of residential (care home) in a neighborhood, if you’re getting that type of care, the person giving you the medication needs to be licensed at a certain level and so does the facility,” she explained.

This law also makes it clear that parents, consumers, neighbors are allowed to sue and/or pursue civil enforcement, Conlon said. Attorney fees will be provided to the prevailing party, she added, which will motivate people to take action. It’s set up so that if anybody sees a violation they can sue, she explained.

“This is a small step toward something that we hope will help,” Conlon said. 

Dixon encouraged residents to write in and support the legislation. 

They’re moving forward on a lot of different levels, Dixon said, and they aren’t done yet.

“We do have a lot of work to do,” Dixon said. “We’re at the beginning of a long journey, but we’re going to fight for this.”

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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