Most Californians are unaware that sober living, detox, social rehabilitation and mental health treatment facilities are allowed to operate in any residential neighborhood throughout the State. Some may be aware that these group homes exist but assume they could never come to a neighborhood like theirs – until one opens in the house next door to them.
California was the birthplace of zoning, a system of laws established to create guidelines at the local level for how land could be used, in order to promote the health, welfare and safety of residents and the public. For years, these laws allowed cities to better allocate resources and avoid incompatible uses, such as putting a school next to a nuclear power plant.
In more recent years, many laws have been enacted by the State of California, which supersede local zoning designations. Several of these laws carve out protections for the care of six or fewer mentally or physically handicapped persons (defined to include alcoholism, substance abuse and emotional problems) to live in residential surroundings, regardless of local regulations or even homeowners association restrictions.
The subsequent movement in favor of mandated substance use treatment over incarceration, combined with the adoption of Obama Care calling for parity of insurance coverage for mental health care, has spurred the proliferation of extremely lucrative recovery homes in neighborhoods throughout the State, the highest concentration of which exists in Orange County.
Two State agencies, the Department of Social Services (DSS) and the Department of Health Care Services (DHCS), are responsible for the licensing of these group homes. Anyone can be granted a license to open this type of facility, and policymakers encourage applicants with a history of addiction or other struggles in their past to become operators. The criteria to obtain a license are minimal, and medical training or evidence that the operator has the ability to get people sober or well is not among them. Reporting requirements to maintain or renew the license are just as scant.
There have been many incidents of body brokering, insurance fraud, overdoses and deaths in this industry. So, putting aside the incongruent medical use and operation of a business in a residential zone, additional parking needs, or the unrecouped costs for intensified utilization of city resources, such as ambulance and police responses, the question everyone should be asking is whether the individuals seeking treatment in these facilities are actually getting the care they need or, even more imperatively, are not being put at greater risk.
After the owner of one of these facilities was allowed to continue to operate and open additional locations in Newport Beach, following the tragic death of a young resident of one of their group homes, the City has started the process to make that inquiry. We initiated a request to the Joint Audit Legislative Committee (JLAC) to determine whether there is sufficient oversight in DHCS’ licensing of these facilities.
That audit is underway. Input should be sent to Kris Applegate ([email protected]) by anyone who has firsthand knowledge relating to the overconcentration of these facilities in one neighborhood, the management of multiple nearby six-bed facilities by one operator, facilities operating without a license, or incidents that should have been investigated or led to the denial or revocation of a license (such as negligence, abuse, overdose, or death).
As privacy laws impede the ability to understand patient outcomes for individual programs, or the system as a whole, feedback from residents with actual experience is critically important, since it will not be sought out by the JLAC auditors.
On the March primary election ballot, before the results of this audit will be completed and released, Californians will be asked to vote on Proposition 1, a $6.3 billion bond measure to give the State even greater latitude to fund and license an unlimited number of beds in group homes, along with other by-right (meaning cities must allow) supportive housing, substance use and mental health facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, on any property zoned for multi-family residential, office, retail or parking.
Governor Newsom is touting Prop 1 as the solution that will end homelessness, by prioritizing “getting people off the streets, out of tents and into treatment”. However, just as with Prop 47, which was marketed to voters in 2014 as the “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act” yet actually made our communities much less safe by downgrading thefts under $950 and drug possession offenses into misdemeanors, the devil is in the details.
Prop 1 will actually divert funds away from existing county-run mental health services to build a State-estimated 4,350 housing units for homeless, and “places for 6,800 people to receive mental health care or drug and alcohol treatment,” according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO).
The LAO acknowledges that the cities where these facilities will be located (without their review or approval) would be responsible for the cost to operate them, and that the addition of these facilities would “reduce statewide homelessness by only a small amount” given that the number of people experiencing homeless in this State is estimated to be over 181,000 and growing.
The need to address the rising incidence of mental health and substance abuse is indisputable, particularly after the pandemic lockdowns and with dangerous drugs, such as fentanyl, flowing across our borders.
What must be challenged, however, is the notion that the same government that has seen a substantial increase in its homeless population, after spending $17.5 billion to combat it, should be entrusted with billions more of taxpayers’ dollars to encourage more unqualified and unregulated opportunists to house those in need of complex medical care, without any consideration of city resources, zoning laws, HOA restrictions or input from the residents—in a neighborhood near you.
Vote No on Proposition 1 this March.
Lauren Kleiman / Newport Beach City Council, District 6