Good neighbors

August 02, 2004

FOR NEARLY a decade, Baltimore has been getting a pass on its discriminatory and illegal zoning laws that govern substance abuse treatment centers and group homes for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Finally, the city has seen fit to address this problem. The administration of Mayor Martin O'Malley has wisely recognized that reforms are considerably overdue.

But more to the point, it has realized that maintaining the status quo would land the city in court, trying to defend an indefensible city ordinance.

Neighborhood groups may be unhappy with the changes - the proposed legislation would replace a 1962 law that basically gave communities veto power over these facilities by requiring providers to get City Council approval.

Under a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, recovering addicts and alcoholics are considered disabled persons. The court found that singling out substance abuse treatment centers and homes for special zoning violated the federal Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act. The new legislation would zone licensed treatment centers, large and small, inpatient and outpatient, like other medical facilities.

For many city residents, the most jarring aspect of this debate may be the fact that recovering addicts are protected under the law because of their disabilities. As a result, several individuals - as many as eight - have the right to live like a family in a house in any part of the city without approval from anyone. Their disabilities set them apart from five unrelated fraternity brothers who are barred by city law from living together. That sounds nonsensical, but that's the law.

If a larger treatment facility wants to open in a residential neighborhood, it will need approval from the city's Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals, and citizens will be able to comment on the request at a public hearing. But understand this: Saying you don't want a drug treatment center or group home in your neighborhood won't be reason enough to bar it. And that is as it should be.

Some city residents already have voiced concerns about the recovery home - usually unlicensed - that springs up in a rowhouse and is not well maintained. But there are laws on the books to deal with these problem neighbors. And City Hall should make code enforcement a priority in this area if it wants to ensure drug treatment opportunities for its addicted citizens. Why not establish a complaint hotline for problem properties and target an area for code enforcement?

At the same time, treatment providers should be involved in their communities like any responsible citizen. Developing good rapport with a community goes a long way toward combating prejudice.

In a city with 60,000 addicts, drug treatment must be available, affordable and accessible. That should mean within blocks or a short bus ride away. Recovering addicts are living and working in the city now. You just may not know who they are because they have given you no reason to think they are anything but good neighbors.

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