Phoenix's Efforts To Revise Regulations On Group Homes Prove Controversial
On a quiet, residential street with the skyline of Phoenix looming large, two stucco houses stand side-by-side, much newer than many of the other single-family homes on the block, a bright yellow tent in between them.
“This is our courtyard area here, this large yellow tent area here is where we eat dinner and my general rule of thumb is if it’s above 100 or below 50, we eat inside, otherwise we eat under this tent," said Father Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and director of Andre House, a nonprofit serving the homeless, including operating the home where he gives me the grand tour.
"One of things people on the street don’t have is any privacy so when these houses we built efficient and sense of privacy, 3 bedrooms, 2 men per bedroom and 2 bathrooms; they are really responsible for keeping the areas clean and neat so on Saturday we do weekly chores, clean the common room and bedrooms."
Up to six men live at Andre House, each one used to be homeless and each is working to get back on their feet. These “guests,” as Father Doyle calls them, usually stay about 4 months before they’re stable again — with a job, money saved and housing secured — and move back into “the real world.”
It really looks like a college dorm room, couple lamps, couple beds, a closet, couple nightstands, it’s pretty basic.
It is. Very simple. When they come in first thing wash stuff, clean sheets and towel and yeah, Dormitory living, yeah, that’s about the right size of it.
Father Doyle’s operation is an example of what the city of Phoenix designates a Group Home.
This category also includes assisted living facilities for the elderly, disabled or mentally ill and houses designated “sober living homes” for people trying to recover from drug or alcohol abuse.
The city has been grappling with proposed changes to the definition of these group homes, in what’s called a text amendment.
And It’s those two words — text amendment — that have created a half-a-year battle between the city and neighborhood groups to find a way to accommodate citizens at risk, while keeping city streets quiet and problem-free.
It’s an arrangement Father Doyle takes seriously.
"No drugs or alcohol allowed and if someone comes back and we can smell alcohol, rule is such they are asked to leave immediately, if we suspect drugs, we take them for a drug test," Doyle said.
This is where Andre House differs from other group homes, say some neighborhood activists.
"There are probably a small percentage of all group homes are actually run well," said Jeff Spellman, a member of Take Action Phoenix, a neighborhood group formed with the purpose of changing Phoenix’s group homes regulation. He says the tidiness and strict rules of a home like Andre House are the exception, not the norm.
The city currently says group homes with six or more people must register so the city can, in theory, keep an eye on them. That’s also when spacing rules kick in — at that point group homes have to be at least a quarter mile away from each other to avoid clustering in neighborhoods. But if you have a group home with one to five people in Phoenix, the city treats that just like any other family unit.
And that, says Spellman, is part of the problem.
The bigger issue are the homes with less than 6. There are thousands of them we’ve found, thousands and thousands of them with absolutely no oversight at all," he said.
Group homes are protected under the Fair Housing Act and under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In the spring of 2015, the Department of Justice was advised by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to pursue legal action against Phoenix because there was no “written and adopted reasonable accommodation allowance” in its group home ordinance.
At that time, to avoid lawsuits, the city stopped enforcing the spacing requirements between group homes. The city started back up again in May this this year.
In an effort to comply with federal law, and update decades-old city code, Phoenix’s Planning and Zoning department proposed increasing the number of people allowed in an unregistered group home from five to six, meaning a group home with up to six people, like Andre House, wouldn’t have to register with the city, and wouldn’t have to abide by any spacing requirements.
That idea did not go over well with some neighborhood groups.
"What we’re getting right now is the legal department, those phantom people who never show up, say we have to do what HUD says to do. We’ve got money... let’s sue em!" said Wally Graham, a Take Action Phoenix member, at a text amendment meeting at City Hall in April.
Spellman explains its main demands: "Something’s got to be done to, one, get the distance requirements back on track and then further, to make sure all sober living homes are registered, that being all of them-- including the ones with less than six, and the last thing is health and safety standards that protect those in recovery. Other cities have done this. The state legislature passed a law last year that allows cities to regulate, for health and safety purposes, group homes," he said.
As Spellman mentioned, high-profile regulations for group homes have made headlines in places like Prescott and Scottsdale, and this has irked neighbors in Phoenix who question why their city hasn’t followed suit.
The city’s Director of Planning and Zoning Alan Stephenson says Phoenix lawyers have been working with Gilbert and other municipalities to see what regulations they can adopt but, he says, the sheer volume of group homes in Phoenix makes the situation much tougher here.
"I think the biggest challenge are probably the sober living homes because all the other types of group homes are regulated by the state, the Dept. Economic Security, DHS, they have oversight quality level of care folks in there. For sober living homes the concern is they don’t regulate them in that fashion and the concern in those facilities is they are a protected class, recovering addicts, by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but because no oversight and no standard of care facilities opening up not providing quality care so folks are out late at night and causing problems in the neighborhood," he said. "This is a big, big issue, addiction, opioid epidemic around the country is only going to worse and they need somewhere to go."
"They need to live somewhere and they have a right to live in our neighborhoods just like anybody else does, but our expectation is that there be adequate oversight," Spellman said. "To be living next to a house where there are men formerly without homes, I can understand what that perception is."
At Andre House, Father Doyle understands why some neighbors worry about homes like his but he say it serves a valuable function.
"But you ask yourself, what is the alternative, right? If it wasn’t for us there would be six men sleeping in an alleyway, not getting sleep, you know just scratching by. I think what we do, when we’re a good neighbor, is take an extraordinary burden off the community. If there’s a house like this in another community, and there are, if they took the time to get to know them, they wouldn’t be afraid of them," he said.
Tomorrow, June 21, the City Council will vote on its proposed text amendment — that’ll provide protection for the city from a DOJ lawsuit — but the issue won’t die there. Take Action Phoenix will continue to meet with city officials about regulation, spacing, and oversight of group homes. They all agree it should come to a larger vote this fall.