City Council looking into sober living homes after residents’ complaints

City Councilwoman Liz Hebert wants the Public Service Commission and district attorney to determine whether any laws were broken in financial transactions between LUS and Fiber. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The Lafayette City Council on Tuesday discussed regulations around sober living homes, residential facilities for people working through substance abuse.

The inquiry was led by Councilwoman Liz Hebert, who said she had received complaints from constituents about sober living homes in her district.

“Over the last eight years, we’ve dealt with these sort of on and off throughout, I know my district,” Hebert said, noting that she’s noticed more sober living homes opening in her district over the past few months. “I wanted to have a public dialogue about this, the types of homes and what control that LCG would have.”

Alcohol and substance abuse disorders are considered disabilities and fall into a protected class under the Fair Housing Act, limiting local governments’ ability to regulate them, for example by way of zoning laws that might restrict them from operating in residential neighborhoods.

“You cannot discriminate on the basis of a protected disability,” Paul Escott, assistant city-parish attorney, told the council. As such, Lafayette cannot require sober living homes to be located in commercial districts or cap occupancy in those homes. Federal law further constrains how city-parish government can regulate hose facilities, as they’re considered residential rather than commercial under federal law.

Lafayette Consolidated Government recently implemented a local application process for operators of sober living homes, which asks providers to provide information on residents and the operator to the Community Development and Planning Department, but there is currently no structure in place to monitor or enforce compliance.

“We don’t dig in, we’re not doing any background checks and digging in and looking at documentation relative to the entity,” said Mary Sliman, director of community development and planning, emphasizing that the application process was still in its model phase. “We’re going to take their word on the application.”

Background checks on residents and staff are the responsibility of the operator, Sliman noted, and so is the enforcement of policies against drug use at the property. As of now, any enforcement action would be performed on a complaint-basis, she said.

Councilman Andy Naquin expressed discontent with that current state of affairs. “We absolutely have no checks and balances other than a piece of paper they fill out,” Naquin said.

More stringent enforcement might trigger challenges based on FHA protections, according to Escott and Sliman.

Barbara Kincannon, who said she recently noticed a new sober living home in her neighborhood, was one of the residents who expressed concern at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We’re going to have a problem,” Kincannon said, after raising her concerns about eight adult men moving into the house, which she said is located next to a residence that is home to two young girls.

Kincannon said she worried about potential sex offenders living in the home without neighbors’ knowledge. In response to a question on the matter by Hebert, staff said they had not looked into the issue of sex offenders specifically, but that they were not aware of any changes to notification and distance requirements usually placed on sex offenders because of sober living homes’ federally protected status.

“I’m not against these,” Kincannon said. “But living next door to one is not pleasant.”

Naquin asked staff about any federal licensing process that might provide documents with more detailed information on operators for city-parish staff to review. Sliman said she was unsure if such a process existed on the federal level.

For now, Naquin concluded, it’s in the hands of residents to file complaints or call the relevant authorities if they witness potential criminal behavior or code enforcement violations on these properties.

“If you have concerns, keep an eye out, talk to each other, and make sure that they’re living within the ordinances of the city of Lafayette,” Naquin said, addressing Lafayette residents. “Something can be done if it’s creating a problem in the neighborhood. But it has to be legitimate and reasonable.”