Mr. La Monte Goes to Washington

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Council Member Lou La Monte with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein in Washington, D.C. last week

Last week, Malibu City Council Member Lou La Monte travelled to Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation of 14 elected officials from communities in LA and Orange counties that belong to the California Contract Cities Association. The hot topic for discussion was the over-proliferation of sober living houses in communities across the U.S., including Malibu.

The Washington delegation met with 12 representatives and four senators during their trip. 

“So many of our legislators were not aware of this issue,” La Monte said. “It was a very successful trip.”

“We were armed with a unanimous resolution representing 19,000 cities in the National League of Cities, asking the federal government to take a look at the new business models for sober living homes that didn’t exist when the Fair Housing Act was first passed [in 1968],” he said. 

La Monte spent an hour with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein discussing the sober living facilities issue. He found that without exception, the elected representatives the delegation spoke with knew nothing about the issue—most assumed that regulation of these facilities was handled at the state level. 

The delegation spent a lot of time simply educating the senators and representatives about the negative effects of having numerous sober living homes in the same neighborhood. 

In addition, most legislators didn’t know that drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities and sober living homes are in two entirely separate categories when it comes to regulation. Drug and alcohol rehabs have medical staff and are licensed by the state, and can be dealt with at the state level. 

But sober living homes, which many recovering drug and alcohol addicts go to after rehab for up to six months, have no medical staff, are not licensed or supervised and are not limited to six patients like the rehabs. 

“Sober living facilities are federally protected,” La Monte explained. According to La Monte, the recovering addicts who live in them are considered to be disabled for the purposes of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Taken together, the FHA and ADA prevent local governments from treating sober living houses any differently than other residential uses in the same zone.

The homes, when they operate as they should, teach these individuals how to live in a real-life setting without drugs or alcohol, require attendance at AA meetings and adherence to house rules, and create a new social support system.

Unfortunately, some property owners are “always trying to exploit” the system, La Monte alleged. “They’re taking advantage of the laws and the lack of regulation.” 

The eight sober living facilities in Malibu that belong to the LA County Sober Living Coalition charge anywhere from $4,500 to $10,000 each month per patient—it’s a growing business model.

Since local and state governments are essentially powerless to do anything to protect sober living home patients or their neighborhoods, any change means going to the federal level.

During a previous trip to Washington on another matter, in January 2017, La Monte had the opportunity to bring up the sober living home issue with Representatives Ted Lieu and Adam Schiff, and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Marco Rubio and Orrin Hatch. Those legislators requested the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to conduct a review of federal and state oversight of sober living homes, and the results of that study are expected to be back in February 2018.

“That study will help us tremendously,” La Monte said. “Change will eventually happen, slowly but surely. It’s a long journey, but we’re going to make the Fair Housing Act fair—it’s a question of keeping up the push.” 

And when it comes to the rehabs, at the state level, La Monte feels California cities are finally gaining some traction. “For the first time in seven years, the state department of healthcare services is working with us instead of against us.”