Housing discrimination is nothing new. Every state forbids it. The Federal government forbids it. Many of the worst abuses are thankfully rare. However age-old tendencies to want to exclude and marginalize people “not like us” haven’t died. Over time, the forms of discrimination change. Things have taken a particularly nasty turn over the past several years, where many of the most egregious violators aren’t sleazy landlords. They’re our own local governments.

When it comes to discrimination, governments have a few extra cards to play against people they want to keep out. A landlord can just refuse to rent you an apartment. A city or a county can cite you, sue you, fine you, file criminal charges and use its police power to keep things just the way they want them to be. Landlords care about their bottom line profits. Cities aren’t often constrained by such small time considerations. After all, they have offices full of lawyers, access to taxpayer dollars and lots of patience. Sometimes they pick on the wrong person, things don’t go according to plan, and the result can be something like St. Paul Sober Living, et al, vs. Board of County Commissioners of Garfield County.

The commentary below appeared in the Aspen Times after a Federal district court ruled that the County had violated the Federal Fair Housing Act. The author, Chris Edrington, is the founder of St. Paul Sober Living and a Board Member of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences. As the article describes, the County decided to pay a substantial settlement to make the hurt go away. The home was permitted to stay, and today its recovering residents enjoy their federally protected rights to live in the neighborhood of their choice.

Guest commentary: Fair housing for all

Aspen Times, April 15, 2014

My name is Chris Edrington. I am the founder of St. Paul Sober Living. We operate several sober-living group homes in St. Paul, Minn., and two in Garfield County.

In 2007, after purchasing a home outside Glenwood Springs in the Elk Springs neighborhood, we began to encounter concern and questions from our neighbors about our presence. Unfortunately, these questions quickly turned accusatory.

The president of the Elk Springs Home Owners Association at the time asked me to confirm that a sober group home was opening up. When I told him it was true, his next question was: “How much do you want to leave?”

Sadly, this question was representative of the tone of the community at large for the next five years. When we held an open house and invited all neighbors, only one couple from the neighborhood came.

The Home Owners Association hired an attorney to find out if they could prevent our sober house from opening, only to learn that it was highly unlikely. Then representatives of the Home Owners Association turned to local government and asked the Garfield County commissioners to sue us — and in 2010, they did.

Garfield County sued St. Paul Sober Living in state court for violating county-zoning ordinances. Our only recourse at St. Paul Sober Living was to counter-sue in federal court, where jurisdiction for this matter lies.

There is a substantial legal record making it abundantly clear that the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act allow sober-living homes to exist and thrive in residential areas like Elk Springs. These laws say people suffering from addiction and in recovery may live together to rebuild their lives and are allowed to live anywhere, regardless of local zoning or Home Owners Association rules.

Additionally, the law requires local governments to provide reasonable accommodation to allow such homes to operate. That means adjusting zoning to accommodate sober homes as they regularly do with other types of group homes.

It seemed, however, that Garfield County went out of its way to delay, dissuade and deter the process. County Commissioner John Martin testified under oath in federal court in 2012 that he and his colleagues were advised by counsel about the Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act, but chose to sue us anyway.

From the vantage point of my company, the county commissioners and the Elk Springs Home Owners Association did not want these residents in their community.

In 2012, a federal jury ruled that Garfield County violated the Fair Housing Act by acting in a discriminatory and retaliatory fashion when it used local zoning regulations in an attempt to shut down our sober-living house. The court also ruled that the county government owed St. Paul Sober Living $400,000 for lost business and our lawyers another $400,000 for costs incurred. Last month we settled on a final payment that is a few hundred thousand less, but the county’s discrimination nevertheless cost taxpayers more than $500,000.

Our biggest disappointment is that our neighbors and the county commissioners did not take the time to learn about the law and what sober-living homes do and how they do it. If they had, I believe the lawsuit could have been avoided.

St. Paul Sober Living homes typically accommodate up to 10 residents and are located in single-family neighborhoods. In all, my company has more than 100 beds filled with people working hard to build a new life.

Most residents are coming out of treatment programs, where they were immersed in an atmosphere of professional support aimed at breaking the cycle of addiction. To help them take the next step, St. Paul Sober Living provides a supportive home with structure and expectations. We are about sober living, not simply sober housing. Our residents recognize the efficacy of this, and

– Remain sober
– Become a supportive member of the house
– Abide by house rules, including curfew and transparency
– Submit to regular drug-testing and periodic room searches
– Participate actively in Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous
– Maintain a reasonable schedule of employment, school and/or volunteer work.

Most importantly, they must demonstrate a desire to grasp and develop a healthy, sober life.

The truth is the Roaring Fork Valley is a great place to do that. People in recovery here own companies, work in every type of job, coach kids, compete athletically, volunteer and fill any number of roles in the community. They are young and old, parents and single. Many attend one or more of the 88 AA or NA meetings scheduled each week between Aspen and Glenwood Springs.

In addition to a strong economy, the valley offers a great educational opportunity with Colorado Mountain College. Our homes, both in Elk Springs and Carbondale, are just blocks away from CMC facilities.

The resolution of this case represents an opportunity for positive change. As the owner of two sober living houses in the area, I invite all who live in this great place to get to know those of us living sober lifestyles and help the community overcome stereotypes that do so much harm.

Chris Edrington founded St. Paul Sober Living in 2001. He previously lived in Vail and Boulder, and now regularly visits the Roaring Fork Valley. Chris has been clean and sober for more than 15 years.