Neighbors oppose sober house in historic New Bedford neighborhood
NEW BEDFORD — The manager of a sober house company has sparked strong opposition in the neighborhood by purchasing a large historic home west of downtown, but for now he’s not saying what he has planned for the property.
“At this point, we’re taking it day by day,” Hunter Foote, founder and CEO of Worcester-based Vanderburgh House, said in a Sept. 13 interview. One of his LLCs bought 52 Ash Street, an 8,500-square-foot, six-bedroom historic home, for $538,000 in July.
Some residents of the National Register Historic Moreland Terrace District lined the streets with protest signs to oppose the opening of any sober house in the neighborhood. Tuesday evening at City Hall, a City Council committee addressed their concerns.
Neighbors say the sober house — a form of congregate living for people recovering from drug abuse — doesn’t belong in the historic single-family neighborhood, which also happens to be home to Mayor John Mitchell, state Rep. Antonio Cabral and a state senator. Mark Montini and former Mayor Scott Lang.
Mitchell wrote an Aug. 25 letter to the state Ethics Commission seeking advice to allow him to act despite a “potential conflict of interest” if a sober house is proposed in his neighborhood.
About 20 to 30 sober homes are already operating in New Bedford. People who work in the field of addiction recovery stress the importance of stable housing and peer support in helping people stay sober after addiction treatment.
Sober houses are not regulated under city or state law, although Massachusetts has a voluntary certification program run by a nonprofit organization.
Neighbors also expressed concerns that the single-family home at 110 Hawthorne Street would become a sober house. But the organization that leased the property told The Light it had no such plans.
The Hawthorn Street property will be a seven-bed home for people with mental health disorders. The Lincoln, Rhode Island-based organization operates a variety of behavioral health programs for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. Kimberly Mello, the organization’s regional director, said she would not treat patients with substance use disorder at the Hawthorne Street home.
Foote, of Vanderburgh, said one of his LLCs bought the Ash Street property without any designs on it. He was drawn to it because it had been on the market for more than a year, the price kept coming down, “We like historic homes,” he said, and he buys properties through LLCs for a range of projects.
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Vanderburgh operates sober houses in seven states, including one on County Street in New Bedford.
Foote said he would not do anything to compromise the historic integrity of the house at 52 Ash, which was built for textile magnate William D. Howland in the late 1800s.
Otherwise, Foote said, the home’s future was up in the air, though he admitted he had considered expanding sober home operations in New Bedford.
Neighbors were emailed on September 8 by an agent representing Foote offering to sell the six-bedroom home for $800,000, but said the deal had to be closed by September 30.
The email mentioned “neighbors’ concerns about the proposed use of the property,” but in an interview with The Light, Foote declined to provide any details about those plans, or whether they would include running a sober house as neighbors believed he would.
“The plan, if it doesn’t get bought out, is to do something,” he said.
The agent told residents that Foote was considering selling the property “despite all the work, effort and expense they have put into getting this up and running so far,” including the full architectural plan and feasibility studies, but Foote was unable to provide details. On the current status of his property. He said he did not know whether the building was occupied, or whether work had begun to maintain the building’s heating system – the email indicated the contractor had already been paid to do the work and Foote’s plan was to “finish the heating installation.” System.” A city spokesman confirmed that Foote had not obtained any permits to work on the property.
Foote was a director of Calderia LLC when the company purchased the Ash Street home in July. State records show a change occurred on September 14, the day after The Light’s interview: The manager is now Dawna Thomas-Foote, and Hunter Foote is the resident agent, both showing up at the same Worcester address.
Erin Schaal, a former New Bedford city attorney who was active with the Moreland Terrace neighborhood group, doesn’t believe Foote’s assertion that he doesn’t have a specific plan for Ash Street.
“It would be unusual to buy a property without having any idea what you’re going to do with it,” Schall said.
But former Mayor Lange said that if Foote isn’t truly committed to a sober house — which Lange opposes — that’s good news. “The neighborhood would be happy to work with them to rehabilitate it as a single-family home,” or perhaps as an apartment complex under a zoning variance, Lang said. “If he’s serious about investing, I think that’s great.”
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Neighbors who formed the group say they are concerned about the sober house’s impact on safety, traffic and property values.
Walter Platt of Ash Street argued that the area — zoned for single-family homes and part of the historic neighborhood — is not the right place for a home full of recovering addicts.
He said the children walk to the two elementary schools less than a half-mile away. He asked what happens if the sober house residents break the house rules and have to leave.
“If they are expelled for returning to their old ways, where do they go?” – Platt asked. Two former nursing homes in New Bedford are more suitable locations, he said.
Rachel Thomas Higgins, whose yard faces 52 Ash Street, said sober houses undermine the stability of the neighborhood. “It’s a revolving door of people coming in or out,” Higgins said. “Who is your neighbor? Who is there? And how are they invested in building the community?”
Neighbors point to a study of home sales published in 2014 that they say supports their case, but it’s not clear how relevant that research is to sober homes. The study, which analyzed 10 years of home sales in Central Virginia, focused on drug treatment centers, which are very different from sober homes. In searching the 28-page study, the terms “sober home,” “sober home,” or “recovery facility” don’t even appear.
A subsequent study by three academic economists criticized the 2014 research for its method and conclusions. That 2019 report, which also focused on addiction treatment, not sober homes, found no relationship between the presence of treatment centers and property values.
The arguments of the Moreland Terrace neighbors caught the attention of at-large City Councilman Brian Gomez, who placed the issue on the agenda for the August council meeting. The Council referred the matter to the Appointments and Briefings Committee for its meeting on Tuesday at seven in the evening.
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“It’s not that we don’t want to help people,” Gomez said in an interview. “I think there are appropriate places for these treatment centers, sober homes. Under the law, they can go almost anywhere.” While sober homes are sprouting up in residential neighborhoods throughout New Bedford, “I don’t think this is appropriate,” Gomez suggested. Put them in vacant mills instead.
The council invited Foote to attend Tuesday’s meeting, but Foote said he was not sure why. “They are expecting a proposal,” he added. “We don’t have one.”
Moreland Terrace is limited to single-family homes, but the zoning code allows “group homes” there under a special permit granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
City officials must be wary of any new review or regulation targeting sober homes, lest they run afoul of housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The mayor has declined to comment on the Ash Street property, other than in his letter to the state Ethics Commission. The Ash Street property is “three doors down from my house,” Mitchell wrote. However, Mitchell wrote that because of his responsibilities as mayor, “it is unrealistic for me to back off on this issue.”
“Establishing a sober house may raise complex legal, permitting, and public safety issues,” Mitchell wrote. “I anticipate that I will have to allocate significant funding to the city’s response.”
Email correspondent Arthur Hirsch at email@example.com.
New Bedford Light reporter Grace Ferguson contributed to this story. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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