New sober home legislation: The pros and cons

State lawmakers pass legislation to keep recovery residents, neighbors safe

By Christina Vazquez - Reporter

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. - Since the April "Call Christina" investigation into sober homes, state lawmakers passed new legislation to keep recovery residents and neighbors safe. HB 21 establishes a voluntary certification program for recovery residences and recovery residence administrators. 

Since the story aired, Miami-Dade County officials moved in and condemned four homes being operated as sober homes in the northwest Miami-Dade area following a laundry list of zoning and code violations.

Willie Gamble, owner of United in Recovery Inc., said he was leasing the following homes:

14670 NW 16th Dr Owner: VALENTINA DE LEON & H JUAN G DE LEON

1145 NW 151 ST Owner: VALENTINA DE LEON JUAN DE LEON

15101 NW 10 Ct Owner: VALENTINA DE LEON & H JUAN GARY DE LEON

15135 NW 10 Ct Owner: YOMAIRA PAYERO &H WAILY DE LEON

WEB EXTRA: MDPD calls for service at 1145 NW 151st St.

WEB EXTRA: MDPD calls for service at 14670 NW 16th Drive.

On June 23, 2015, Tere Florin from Miami-Dade County explained via email: "All of the houses have had their electrical power disconnected, and staff has been conducting periodical inspections and has reported the homes to be vacant. The properties were all condemned and homeowners are still under the 90-day timeline (from when we opened the case) to rectify the violations. To date, they have not filed any permit applications."

Local 10 News was there as the last remaining residents were being escorted out of one of the homes, assisted by the Homeless Trust. Neighbors applauded the action telling Local 10 News they think the "Call Christina" investigation "finally got the attention of the county," and that they hoped the people previously residing in them find help.

United in Recovery's operator, Willie Gamble, placed the blame on the homeowner(s). He said he paid rent in addition to added funds intended for repairs, and did not know the homeowner(s) were not in compliance.

WEB EXTRA: Aggravated battery report from 15101 NW 10th Court

Violations included unauthorized use in a single family residential district, operating a rooming house without first obtaining a public hearing and working without a permit when the property was converted from a single family home to multi-family use.

Gamble said he benefited from Local 10 News' coverage by gaining a better understanding of what is not permitted in terms of county code, building and zoning regulations. He also said he has been working with the Florida Association of Recovery Residences (FARR) to improve his program, which he said is still in operation in a different community.

At the time of the investigation, and after reviewing the video, John Lehman, the President of FARR said his impression was the program was "dysfunctional." After the story aired, Lehman confirmed that Gamble had reached out to him and told Local 10 News that he thinks Gamble's heart is in the right place and is committed to running a safe environment for recovering addicts.

The homeowner(s) have not responded to requests for an interview following the broadcast of our investigation.

Also in June, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed HB 21 Substance Abuse Services into law.

The law was designed to ensure recovery residences are safe for the people who are seeking treatment and neighbors.

The bill was filed by U.S. Rep. Bill Hager, a Republican from Boca Raton, and establishes a process for operators of recovery residences to become "certified" by a state-approved organization. The legislation requires the Department of Children and Families to select a nonprofit as the certification organization.

According the Hager's office, DCF has to put a proposal together and then send it out for bids. In a statement, DCF said "the department has not yet approved a credentialing entity for recovery residences, per section 397.487, F.S., or recovery residence administrators, per section 397.4871, F.S, but expects to be able to do so before the December 1, 2015 deadline."

FARR hopes to be chosen as that certification organization.

At this time, the certification would be voluntary but the legislation created an incentive for recovery residences to seek certification by barring certain client referrals to sober homes that are not certified by July 2016.

The day HB 21 passed, Hager spoke with Local 10 News investigative reporter Christina Vazquez. He said while some sober homes offer good services to help clients, others are a threat to both the people residing in them and near them. He hopes this legislation will cast a spotlight on shady sober home operators working in the shadows,

"Getting this bill across the finish line has been very important to me," Hager said. "People are going to know where these homes are. These homes, even though there cannot be discriminatory legislation, they're still subject to local zoning ordinances such as sanitary codes, such as occupancy codes. And right now, municipalities do not know where these homes are (and) where they're located. So that's number one in terms of beginning to understand these facilities."

WATCH: U.S. Rep. Bill Hager on sober home legislation

While the intent is to create some oversight of sober homes for recovering drug and alcohol addicts, attorney Jeff Cohen told Local 10 News: "Unfortunately the government has side-stepped it entirely and offloaded the responsibility to an organization that has no accountability in Florida. The problem with the legislation, as I saw, there's an unspecified not-for-profit organization that has the responsibility to come up with the criteria, enforce it, certify these folks, de-certify them and there's no fingerprints, there's no transparency. There's none of the usual responsibility the government takes to protect vulnerable people. This legislation is the government saying, 'it's really important to us, we don't want the job.' And that's the problem that I have with it."

WATCH: Attorney Jeff Cohen on cons of sober home bill

When approached with those concerns, FARR President John Lehman stated, "DCF has determined that recovery residences do not provide any clinical support. They're not treatment facilities, therefore they don't fall under our mandate. There is a preponderance of evidence on a national basis that whenever a state government or a local government tries to step in and create regulation on sober homes, what they're doing is they're discriminating against a disabled class of individuals by saying that your home in this neighborhood is different than anyone else's home in this neighborhood."

WATCH: FARR President John Lehman speaks about legislation concerns

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