Conflict pits law and rehab effort
City-Parish officials in Baton Rouge are feuding in federal court with a nonprofit organization that arranges leases of single-family homes by groups of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.
The nonprofit is the 36-year-old Oxford House Inc. in Maryland. Its practice is not to provide municipal officials advance notice of the establishment of these group homes in single-family neighborhoods.
Oxford House quietly has located 15 such homes in single-family residential areas of Baton Rouge since 2003, according to recent testimony by Martin J.C. Walker, the organization’s outreach coordinator in Louisiana.
The Parish Attorney’s Office is attempting to use existing zoning restrictions to force residents of two group homes to leave the Westminster Place and Goodwood Villa subdivisions.
Meanwhile, a federal probe related to the local dispute, has been launched from Texas.
An Oxford House discrimination complaint against Baton Rouge spawned the ongoing investigation by the Fort Worth regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city-parish officials revealed in court filings last month.
City-Parish officials contend in both venues that they are not discriminating against former substance abusers. Oxford House residents simply are not eligible for exemptions from single-family, detached-house, zoning rules that define families as including no more than two people who are unrelated, city officials stated in court and in a letter to HUD.
“The City-Parish further alleges that … throwing the door open for any group of unrelated persons to establish unregulated group homes would gut single-family zoning,” Assistant Parish Attorney Joseph K. Scott III recently said in court filings.
Oxford House is not licensed by the state or any other governmental agency.
But officials of the state Department of Health and Hospitals have been supportive of Oxford House. The nonprofit has received a combined total of $1.25 million in a series of one-year state contracts since July 1, 2004, DHH officials said.
Court records show the group homes in Baton Rouge are among at least 58 homes scattered across Louisiana and 1,500 across the nation.
“We don’t have enough of them, really,” Dr. Rochelle Head-Dunham, DHH’s medical director for the Office of Behavioral Health, said in an interview.
“We really have not had problems with Oxford House,” Head-Dunham said. “They have been a welcome option.”
State funds pay the salaries and expenses of two Oxford House staff members responsible for monitoring the 58 leased homes for compliance with sobriety and other rules enforced by the nonprofit, she said.
“This (program) provides houses for people who already have gone through (alcohol or drug) treatment,” Head-Dunham added.
Without those houses, she said, many of the residents would “return to homelessness and ultimately to a relapse.”
Hope and fear
Two Oxford House residences — in the 4200 block of Drusilla Lane and 1800 block of Shawn Drive — are each intended to accommodate as many as nine people. Those homes are at the heart of the federal court dispute in Baton Rouge and the HUD investigation directed from Fort Worth.
The residences are home to women attempting to rebuild their lives. They do that through required employment and sobriety, shared household responsibilities, and communal support, Oxford House attorneys Morgan Williams, of New Orleans, and Steven G. Polin, of Washington, D.C., said in court filings.
In addition, each resident understands that even one relapse would require expulsion from the residence, the Oxford House attorneys added. And each resident of a group home pays $400 per month towards its lease.
“If the city were to succeed in its (zoning-code) enforcement effort, it would force the eviction of up to seven women from each of the Oxford Houses,” Polin and Williams told U.S. District Judge James J. Brady.
The Oxford House attorneys added that case law shows “recovering alcoholics and addicts who cannot presently live independently or with their natural families … are individuals with handicaps within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act.”
Under the fair-housing law, handicapped individuals are eligible for exemptiom from single-family zoning restrictions.
But Elliott W. Atkinson Jr., counsel for the Federation of Greater Baton Rouge Civic Associations, said in an interview that the fair-housing law is never that simple.
“A group of eight to 12 unrelated people is not a single family,” Atkinson said. “It’s not a single-family (neighborhood) if you can just come in and put in anything you want.
“This is really a dispute between special-needs housing (advocates) and … people who thought they were buying homes in single-family neighborhoods,” Atkinson said. “It’s a clash.”
What would happen to property values in a single-family, detached-house neighborhood if city-parish officials permitted a developer to sandwich an apartment complex between the homes, Atkinson mused.
Or if an Oxford House resident relapsed and caused something bad to happen, Atkinson said: “I would think there could be a tremendous diminution of property values.
“These are some serious questions,” Atkinson said.
Troy Hodges and his family live a few doors west of the Oxford House on Drusilla Lane. He is the husband and manager of gospel recording artist Vicki Yohe.
“I didn’t even know it (Oxford House) was there,” Hodges said. “If the program is run well, I don’t have any problem with it.
“They (women recovering from alcohol and drug addiction) have to live somewhere,” Hodges added.
Hodges said he disagrees with Oxford House’s practice of not alerting authorities in advance of the establishment of a group home in single-family neighborhoods.
But he expressed appreciation for the nonprofit’s requirement for immediate expulsion of any resident who relapses into alcohol or drug abuse.
“That would be the right thing to do,” Hodges said.
A few doors north of the Oxford House residence on Shawn Drive, Gray Bolton was caring for his elderly parents at the home in which he grew up.
Bolton, who now resides elsewhere in the city, said he and his parents initially had the same concern: “Are property values going to go down?”
That hasn’t happened yet, Bolton said.
“I can’t tell you it (Oxford House) is a good thing or a bad thing,” Bolton added. “I don’t think that it’s changed the neighborhood at all.”
No one answered the door at the Oxford House on Shawn Drive. A woman at the Drusilla Lane group home declined to be interviewed.
But residents of both homes testified June 29 before Brady.
Kristen McLeod, 28, said she has been sober for 10 months and wants to remain with the women on Shawn Drive because: “My experience, my strength and my hope is what I share on a daily basis with people just like me, and they give me the same in return.”
Jaime Porter, 35, said the women at the Drusilla Lane residence have helped her remain sober for more than nine months
“Are you inundated with complaints about the behavior of folks in these Oxford Houses?” Brady asked Scott, the assistant parish attorney.
“You know, it comes and goes, judge,” Scott replied.
“That the (requested exemptions) sought to redefine ‘family’ to include six to eight unrelated adults is, frankly, unreasonable,” Scott added.
The judge ordered both sides to provide briefs by July 20 on the question of whether recovering addicts and alcoholics are considered handicapped under federal law.
“If there is no need for an (exemption), then the … city prevails,” Brady said. “If there is … then (Oxford House) prevails.”