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How does Massachusetts law apply to sober homes?

Vanderburgh House is proud to offer sober homes for folks recovering from the disabling effects caused by the disease of addiction. Our homes are typically large single-family homes located in residential neighborhoods. It's important to us to work closely with the communities in which we operate, including city zoning, planning, inspectional services, health departments, and other municipal bodies to build safe and healthy environments for our residents. There are often many questions about sober homes in regards to how they are considered under State and Federal law.

Since March 12, 1989 (the effective date of the 1988 Amendments to the Federal Fair Housing Act) it has been a matter of Federal law. Those amendments make it unlawful for any jurisdiction to discriminate against congregate living for those who are disabled. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are within the scope of the term "disabled". Therefore, sober homes for the disabled may not be discriminated against through zoning or otherwise. Our homes are not treatment facilities. Our homes are recovery-focused alcohol-free and drug-free living environments which provide the opportunity for recovering individuals to live as a family focused on the need to change their individual lifestyle to one free of alcohol and drug use.

It is important to us at Vanderburgh House that our residents are treated with the same dignity and respect that would be afforded any of our own family members, neighbors, or friends. Like Federal law, according to M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3, as interpreted by case law, persons in recovery from substance abuse may be qualified as disabled. State law further provides that groups of disabled individuals may live together in the same numbers allowable at the same property as if it were occupied by a single family. In short, unrelated disabled individuals living together are to be treated the same as related individuals living as a family. The intent of the law is to remove any barriers for housing opportunities for disabled individuals that may be created by ordinances, zoning laws or decisions of municipalities, such as limits on the number of unrelated people that may live together.

Pertinent Massachusetts Case Laws

M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3 applies to congregate living arrangements among the disabled. Given that the occupants of sober homes are in recovery from substance abuse, under State and Federal Law they may be considered “disabled” or “handicapped.” See Granada House, Inc. v. City of Boston, et al., Suffolk Superior Court Civil Action No. 96-6624-E.

Several legal decisions in Massachusetts have applied M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3 to sober recovery homes. “As a civil rights statute, [M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3] is remedial and the court

must construe it liberally. [citations omitted] In the present case, the court concludes that

Massachusetts would look to federal law, including the FHA, in interpreting the phrases

“disabled person” and “persons with disabilities”, and that by so doing, the MZA must be read to bar the City’s discriminatory treatment of a group home for recovering drug and alcohol users under the code.” See City of Brockton v. St. Mary Broad Street.

Chapter 40A, Section 3 applies to “safety laws, regulations, practices, ordinances, bylaws

and decisions of a city or town” that would discriminate against disabled individuals.

Under G.L. 40A, Section 3, a congregate group of unrelated disabled persons living together

should be able to occupy a property in the same manner as a family. "It is elementary that the

meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is

framed, and if that is plain, ... the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its

terms." See Massachusetts Community College Council v. Labor Relations Comm'n, 402 Mass. 352, 354, 522 N.E.2d 416 (1988), quoting James J. Welch & Co. v. Deputy Comm'r of Capital Planning & Operations, 387 Mass. 662, 667, 443 N.E.2d 382 (1982).

Written in collaboration with Andrew Tine, Esq. ---

This discussion is not intended to be legal advice and should not be relied upon for any purpose. If you have any specific legal questions or needs, please contact a lawyer located in your jurisdiction.