By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – According to sober living home operator Jennifer Hansen of the Hansen Foundation, Inc., the opioid epidemic has created the need for post-treatment housing, and that the federal Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act prohibit discrimination against those in recovery who are considered a protected class of disabled citizens.
Hansen attended the Sept. 24 Board of Commissioners meeting virtually, to dispel misconceptions and provide information about the five sober living homes in Ventnor City operated by the Hansen Foundation.
Following Commissioner Lance Landgraf’s assertion that there are 25 group homes in the city, Hansen clarified that the Hansen Foundation only operates five of them. She said the foundation owns several and rents a few, but the goal of the organization is to own the properties to ensure their proper upkeep and maintenance.
“A lot of times the landlords don’t want to keep them up to the standards that I like them kept,” she said. “I found it is better for us to own the houses so if we have to do maintenance on them, we can fix them, and we are not investing in a house we do not own.”
Landgraf said he has visited several of the Hansen homes, which have been remodeled and upgraded to ensure they meet current building codes and provide a pleasant environment for clients.
Hansen said one of the properties the foundation purchased had squatters living in “totally unlivable conditions” and an oil tank leak that had to be remediated. The house was totally cleaned up and totally remodeled into “a beautiful house.”
After hearing complaints from residents about the impact of having three Hansen houses on their block, Landgraf reached out to Hansen and state officials to see if anything can be done to prevent clustering homes in one area. Hansen said she is trying to address that problem and that two of the three properties will be relocated to other areas.
“But it’s a process,” she said.
Unlike Oxford houses, which are democratically self-run residences, Hansen’s houses have a manager who works 40 hours a week assisting those in recovery with court dates, doctor’s appointments, job applications, supervised child visitations and anything else that would help them get back on their feet. All the residents are drug-tested on a weekly basis and expected to abide by the 11 p.m. weekday curfew, 1 a.m. on weekends.
“They have to stay clean,” she said. “If they fail their drug test, they have to leave, but we make sure they have a place to go.”
Residents in step-down housing after completing detox at the Enlightened Solutions center in Atlantic City can stay as long as 18 months, because “that’s how long it really takes for someone to recover successfully,” Hansen said.
“We’ve had to open more houses to substantiate the need, and it’s not just in this neighborhood,” she said. “There are sober living houses all over the state, all over the country.”
Residents in the North Beach section have complained that after years of trying to re-establish their neighborhood as an up and coming place to live, the Hansen houses are bringing down perceptions about the neighborhood, which affects property values, they said.
“We are not trying to tax the neighborhood, we are trying to be really good neighbors,” Hansen said. “We try to listen to peoples’ concerns and see if there’s anything we can do to make it better. The people living in our houses are trying to put their lives together and they are successful at it.”
The foundation is turning those into recovery into taxpaying citizens, she said.
Hansen said families affected by addiction call her to get their loved one into the program because they don’t want them “going to live in squalor. We want to give the people a sense of self-worth and have them live in a nice place,” she said.
Residents pay $180 a week to live there with approximately 10 other people in recovery. About half of the residents own vehicles, she said. Although it is a non-profit organization, the foundation pays full real estate taxes on the assessed value of the home, Mayor Beth Holtzman said.
Those who don’t have cars need to live in an area near businesses and public transportation, Hansen said. Neighbors have complained about the lack of parking and residents gathering in groups on front porches to smoke cigarettes.
“We respond to complaints when we get them,” Hansen said. “We do not allow smoking in the houses for fire safety purposes, so we cleared out garages as smoking areas, and we ask them to go out one at a time.”
Two people in recovery spoke about how the Hansen Foundation saved their lives, including Shirley Gregory of Bergen County, who has been in treatment since February.
“We are a huge part of your community. We are your waiters, waitresses, nurses, pharmacists, educate your children, and come from many walks of life. We spend a lot of money in your community. You don’t have a full understanding of what these houses do for us,” she said.
Another man in recovery said that he was homeless and living in his car more than a year ago, but since then he has cleaned himself up and now works managing a UPS Store in a well-known family business in Margate.
“We bring a lot to this community. I would be homeless or dead if it were not for Jennifer,” he said.
During the virtual meeting, neighbors posted comments, both negative and supportive, in the “chat room” on the Zoom platform.
One resident said he feared Ventnor would become “the sober living capital of the East Coast.”
Jennifer Hansen’s mother Edwina thanked everyone for expressing their opinions during the meeting and said that the Class F designation provided by the Department of Community Affairs is basically a “brick and mortar” license, but that the foundation is seeking to operate under “best practices.”
Having a credentialing agency allows families to be assured their loved one is getting the best treatment and recovery available.
Property owner Ben Weinraub, who rents one of his properties to the foundation, said Ventnor has the lowest property values outside of Atlantic City on Absecon Island, which makes it attractive to group home operators.
He said the city should concentrate on upgrading other run-down homes to increase property values, which would make them unaffordable to group home operators.
“Houses are not maintained like they should be in North Beach. If we all work together to keep up property values, and fix the issues, it raises the property values and it would no longer be economically desirable for them to run these houses in that neighborhood, and they will move onto cheaper neighborhoods. It’s that simple. That is where the focus of the conversation should be, rather than a discriminatory one that is illegal.”
Landgraf said he has been speaking with Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo about introducing proposed legislation that would require licensing or credentialing of sober living homes before they are granted certificates of occupancy.
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