Still No Traction on Sober Living Homes and Rehabs

Malibu City Hall

The proliferation of drug and alcohol treatment centers, and sober living facilities in Malibu — 33 at last count — has forever altered several Malibu neighborhoods.

Clusters of rehab facilities often run a commercial business not unlike a hotel, generating 24/7 traffic from service providers, delivery trucks and commuting employees, and bringing in an estimated $100 million, though that may be a lowball figure. The Federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provides the legal framework allowing such for-profit enterprises to exist.

While studies have shown the efficacy of sober living homes (SLHs) during the recovery process in general, there can be wide variations in quality in an essentially unregulated industry, especially in Malibu.

City Hall first made efforts to crack down on lucrative operations neighbors say disrupt the character of many neighborhoods in June 2013, but that process is at somewhat of a standstill. The state is responsible for regulating such operations, not local municipalities. 

City Manager Jim Thorsen returned last week from a meeting of cities in Fran Pavley’s 27th State Senate District, where the problem of the clustering of rehab facilities in some neighborhoods was discussed. He added that “a lot of constituents” have also brought drug rehab and SLH problems to the attention of the California Contract Cities Association and the League of California Cities.

“We’re still pushing hard at this end with Sacramento, and we also do outreach to a variety of legislators in other cities” on the rehab issue Thorsen said. “A distancing requirement would go to great lengths to help the problem [of clustering].”

A complaint that Malibu had brought against Passages Malibu in June 2013 concerning the alleged use of false addresses to obtain state licensing is still being investigated by the state, Thorsen said.

But despite a heavy stigma surrounding sober living and rehabilitation facilities in Malibu, there are a few that try to operate “below the radar” and say they have done so successfully. 

Richard Cortez, a registered addiction specialist, has been the director and “strong manager” of the local Always Hope sober living facility for over two years. 

When Cortez accepted the job, he told the owner he didn’t want “to come to Malibu and babysit. I need to be able to kick clients out [of the facility if needed]; I need to be free to do the work I do.” 

Always Hope usually has six co-ed residents, mostly ages 18-24, who stay for an average of six to nine months. 

“There’s no exit date,” Cortez said, “and you can’t just expect them to be on their own right after rehab…Many, when they first arrive, come up with all kinds of excuses about why they should leave.”

The 13 sober living facilities in Malibu belonging to the LA County Sober Living Coalition charge anywhere from $4,500 to $10,000 a month. The self-regulating organization issues certificates of compliance to members after conducting its own facility inspections.

A recent long-term study funded by the National Institute of Health showed that an addict’s chances of future success – not relapsing – are significantly improved by going from the treatment center to a SLH for at least six months. There, they learn how to live in a real-life setting without drugs or alcohol and create a new social support system.

The uncertainty of their stays and visits, however, makes it difficult for some neighbors to tolerate.

In a 2013 letter to the editor, Malibu resident Jo Giese outlined a complaint many have had about SLHs.

“Malibu Beach Sober Living currently operates four facilities in Malibu, including one on my street. What gives these people the right to turn a single-family home, in an area not zoned commercial by Malibu law, into a for-profit sober living facility? …It’s not private anymore when day and night staff and ‘guests’ hog the parking on our neighborhood street and hold meetings which attract dozens of cars,” Giese said. She urged City Council to be more proactive in cracking down, as opposed to leaving the issue in the state’s hands. 

Whether Cortez’s success in quietly operating is unique to Malibu is unclear, but Malibu City Councilwoman Laura Rosenthal believes SLHs can blend into the community if they choose to.

“It’s a matter of how they choose to operate, and whether they show respect to their neighbors,” she said. “They can be responsible business and community members. But as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones. Some don’t respect their neighbors and aren’t really sober living homes even though that’s what they call themselves.”