By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – With the addition of the Hansen Foundation’s fifth sober living home, Ventnor City now has 25 residential properties that are operating as group homes.
At their meeting Sept. 10, city commissioners discussed asking the state to limit the number of group homes allowed in a municipality.
Commissioner Lance Landgraf said he reached out to state legislators requesting they revise a bill introduced in January that would require the Department of Community Affairs to administer a certification program for recovery houses and operators.
Landgraf wants the state to also regulate the number of recovery homes allowed in a community based on population.
Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato introduced Assembly Bill 2270 in late January that was referred to the Senate’s Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee, which introduced an identical bill in the Senate.
“I reached out to Assemblyman Mazzeo and said there’s nothing in here that limits the number. I agree there is a need for sober living homes, and the model that’s out there now, the Oxford House model, is terrible for them. My concern is that we have too many,” he said.
Landgraf said he was scheduled to meet with legislators shortly thereafter, but the bill was pulled from consideration. He hasn’t heard anything since then, he said.
Mazzeo said it took five years to develop the bill based on the flourishing opiate addiction epidemic, but it received some pushback from other municipalities experiencing the same problems that Ventnor is having, he said.
“The reason they are there is because there is a demand for it,” Mazzeo said. “If we didn’t have this huge epidemic of people in addiction, we probably wouldn’t even have this conversation because there wouldn’t be as many sober living facilities.”
He said the bill was pulled from consideration to gather more information in hopes it could be amended to suit the municipalities’ concerns, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He also said he believes a municipality can pass ordinances that regulate occupancy and limit parking.
“These facilities are an important part of (the opiate epidemic),” Mazzeo said. “The licensing would provide a means to ensure they were inspected and operating in a professional manner. The intent of (the bill) is to help people. Now we have an issue where there are too many in a town, and in some regards, that’s not a good thing either.”
The state regulates liquor licenses and rooming houses with certain limitations, such as their geographic location and proximity to each other, Landgraf said.
“That’s what I’m asking for,” he said.
The Hansen Foundation, which operates a recovery center in Atlantic City, recently purchased its fifth property in Ventnor and plans to open another sober living home. Although Hansen owns five properties, there are 20 other properties in Ventnor that are either Oxford houses or recovery homes.
The Hansen Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.
Sober living homes are considered safe havens or transitional housing for those who have already completed addiction rehabilitation and before they can live on their own. Sober living homes, which are assigned a manager, provide those in recovery with structure, teach them independent living skills and provide continued treatment that can lead to long-lasting sobriety.
The Hansen Foundation, a non-profit organization, also operates Enlightened Café, which provides those in recovery with jobs and patrons with organic eating options. Group therapy sessions and yoga classes are held at the rear of the Ventnor Avenue restaurant and provide clients with a holistic approach to recovery.
“That’s a good business for us and people like their food,” Landgraf said. “We welcome that.”
The Department of Community Affairs, not the local zoning office, currently issues certificates of occupancy for these types of homes, he said.
He would like to see the bill revised to allow the state to regulate the number of group homes allowed in each community based on the population.
The purchase of large shore homes with 6-8 bedrooms is based on affordability, and Ventnor and Atlantic City seem to have the property values that have allowed a proliferation of group homes. In nearby Margate, there are no known homes, a city official said.
“I was told the property values are too high in Margate, so they are coming to Ventnor and Atlantic City,” Landgraf said.
Residents have complained about quality of life issues, such as a lack of parking and other annoyances.
Other residents have complained that sober living home residents congregate in groups on their front porch and smoke cigarettes.
“Hansen Foundation does a great job renovating these older homes, some of which are in disrepair, and that’s a positive for the city. Our concern is density, and the number of people they are putting into these properties,” Landgraf said.
Another concern is that because Hansen Foundation is a non-profit organization, it could request tax exemption, which could reduce the ratable base and negatively affect all taxpayers in the city, he said.
Large beach-block homes are typically designed to accommodate two or three parking spaces, but when 10-12 unrelated individuals move into a five- or six-bedroom house, they may each have a vehicle, he said.
“Where do they park?” Landgraf asked.
Members of the Ventnor Community Forum on Facebook have had a mixed reaction to the proliferation of group homes in the community. Some empathize with former addicts who are trying to get their lives together and become active members of a community.
One woman, identified as Brie Lynn, said Ventnor is a perfect place for those in recovery, and that some issues can easily be overcome. She urged neighbors to see the bigger picture of providing resources and safety for those in recovery.
“When you ask, ‘Why Ventnor,’ think of all the reasons you want to be here and the peace it brings you, and imagine how beneficial that can be for someone who has literally nothing else, because you generally enter sobriety with very little,” she said.
She has had four years of sobriety in Ventnor and “can’t imagine recovering anywhere else,” she said. “The Hansen Foundation saves lives, I don’t know why anyone would want to stop them from doing what they’ve been doing incredibly well for so many years.”
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