Alcohol- and Drug-Free Housing

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Alcohol- and drug-free (ADF) housing, also called sober housing, or sober living environments, or alcohol-free living centers, provides domestic accommodation for people who choose to live in an environment that is free of alcohol and/or drugs. ADF housing is ordinary housing, located in residentially zoned areas, distinguished only by the residents' shared commitment not to use alcohol or other drugs.

By definition, ADF housing excludes formal treatment or recovery services on the site. The philosophic premise of ADF housing is that the sober living environment is itself the "service" for residents. ADF housing provides a setting for daily living that supports residents' efforts to maintain sobriety among themselves.

As a practical matter, the presence of on-site human services would subject ADF residences to state or local licensing of staff and to certification of their facilities. Under such circumstances, residences would be treatment facilities and no longer ADF housing. As such, they would lose protections afforded to ADF housing by the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 and become subject to zoning laws that prohibit treatment programs in residential neighborhoods. The result would be the systematic exclusion of such residences from the safe and economically stable areas most conducive to recovery. Under provisions of the Fair Housing Amendments Act, no regulation of any ADF residence is legal unless such requirements are imposed on all private residences in the surrounding community with the same zoning.

Such protections aside, ADF housing is a creature of the marketplace. For it to be affordable, public sponsorship of some sort must close the gap between market rents or mortgage costs and what residents can reasonably pay. A bewildering variety of affordability strategies for rent, property, and construction-cost subsidies has been worked out for individual ADF housing projects, but very few cities or other local jurisdictions have established formal policies to create and to sustain ADF housing.

Even so, for three principal reasons, interest in affordable ADF housing has increased remarkably in the last few years. First, local units of government, special boards, and districts, are under pressure to make provisions for low-income housing. Second, recent studies indicate that affordable ADF housing helps homeless and very low-income people maintain sobriety following initial successes in treatment/recovery programs. Third, ADF housing now figures prominently in discussions of using "social-model" recovery programs as vehicles for the cost-efficient deployment of treatment and recovery services. The search for economical ways to provide such services has led health-care system planners to reduce or eliminate the use of expensive residential-treatment programs. In conjunction with outpatient treatment and adjunct health and social services, affordable ADF housing increasingly is viewed as an alternative.

ADF housing follows three simple tenets: (1) residents must remain alcohol and drug free; (2) rent must be paid on time; and (3) residents must abide by provisions of the landlord-tenant agreement. This agreement may stipulate only that tenants must refrain from disruptive behavior that provides grounds for eviction for cause in local ordinances (typically these are violence or threats of violence, illegal activity, destruction of property, and perpetuation of undue nuisances). However, it may also impose house rules that dictate curfews, limit overnight guests, restrict automobile ownership, delegate house chores, and so forth. As long as the tenant's participation in the regulated household is voluntary, and as long as the rules do not violate civil rights, ADF housing may be highly structured and closely governed.

An ADF residence can be program-affiliated or free-standing. Program-affiliated sober houses are tied to the treatment and recovery orientations of particular organizations. Residents are likely to come from the sponsoring program, and so will have been exposed to the sponsor's procedures and values. Accordingly, the residence will reflect the philosophy and practices of the parent organization. Free-standing houses operate more along the lines of conventional residences and rely exclusively on self-government.

Sober housing can be run by staff or residents. Staff-run houses operate under the direct management of owners, program operators, or housing management firms. Site managers are compensated and often are recovering people who have several more years of sobriety than the residents of the house. (It should be emphasized that for obvious legal reasons, they are not "treatment personnel" and their activities do not comprise formal service interventions.) In resident-run houses, residents take full responsibility for all aspects of house operation related to maintaining sobriety: admissions, maintenance of the house's social environment, disciplinary action, community relations, and physical maintenance.

Resident-run ADF houses may be democratic or oligarchic. Democratic houses may be highly egalitarianthe residents have equal votes and share equally in houses duties, as in Oxford Housesor they may be stratified, formally or informally, by residents' seniority in sobriety or by other measures of status. Some therapeutic communities, such as Delancey Street in San Francisco, California, are oligarchic. In general, larger resident-run programs tend to be more oligarchic in nature, though some provide many opportunities for resident participation in management and operation of the house, as does Beacon House in San Pedro (Los Angeles), California.

The interests of landlords, owners, and program operators notwithstanding, the rules of ADF households seek to protect a sober environment. For their own peace of mind, residents often prefer places that impose restrictions in the service of restraint, predictability, and good order. Entrance and eviction policies are critical in this respect.

ADF housing is not magically exempt from our meaner or more self-serving impulses toward exclusiveness. However, in well-run residences, entrance decisions focus only on the capacity of an individual to benefit from the house milieu. Such decisions, in which residents usually play an important part (if only to exercise rights of refusal), consider the structure and character of the house "program" in relation to the needs of a potential resident. Thus, a prospective resident with an expressed need or desire for a highly structured environment would be discouraged from entering a house with little structured activity. All recovering people can benefit from ADF housing, regardless of their treatment histories or other circumstances. But as ADF housing represents a spectrum of possibilities for group living, particularly concerning the extent to which the environment is regulated, its potential consumers must find a good fit. Variety in ADF housing is therefore essential.

Residents are free to live in sober housing as long as they follow house rules. Any fixed time limit on length of tenancy is contrary both to the spirit and (in most communities) to the laws of residency. However, those few who violate basic house rules must leave. Although management or a residents' council makes the final determination that basic house rules have been broken, violations usually are obvious in a well-run house. If formal proceedings are necessary, the only question to be settled is whether the violation actually occurred; thereafter, commencement of the eviction process is automatic. Residents usually understand well the penalties for violations; those who know they will be evicted often choose to leave immediately.

Violation of sobriety policy is the most common reason for a tenant's eviction or voluntary separation from ADF housing. ADF houses vary somewhat in their toleration of drinking and drug use. Nearly all take a "no-slip" approach, in which a single episode of drinking or using means that the person must leave. Some permit individuals to slip once or twice before being evicted. Residents generally find that firm no-drinking, no-using policies promote a sense of equity and maintain tranquility in the house.

Some houses prefer a "client-centered" policy that permits the drinker/user to remain in contact with counselors and otherwise receive help without having to leave the residence. The risk in such a policy is that repeated drinking or using episodes among residents will disturb the social environment of the house. Some multicomponent programs with very large facilities handle this issue by asking the drinker/user to move from the sober housing component of the program to the detoxification or primary-recovery unit. Some ADF residences that permit off-site but not on-site drinking or using have found this policy to work well to reduce chronic intoxication among those for whom continuous sobriety is not a realistic expectation.

Eviction proceedings are time consuming and filled with legal procedures that have been designed to protect and extend the rights of the resident. A signed landlord-tenant agreement that specifically proscribes drinking and/or using offers the strongest starting point for eviction; but an eviction process can sometimes drag on for weeks or months even in the most clear-cut cases. Successful ADF houses rely on resident participation in management. (A residents' manual provides a model for peer-based response to a resident's drinking or drug use.)

ADF housing works best when residents themselves actively maintain the collective sobriety of their home. Management's task is to create a living environment in which sobriety is respected and maintained by the residents. Frequent contact between management and residents, both informally and through regular house meetings, provides a medium for interaction that quickly identifies a resident who has been drinking or using. Secretiveness and the absence of communication are important signs that something isn't right.

Architectural design plays a central role in creating an ADF housing environment that promotes both open social interaction and mutual accountability. The basic floor plan of the residence makes a critical contribution. "Open" circulation systems in buildings bring people into contact with one another. Examples are open-plan houses in which space flows from one room into another; areas that have nooks and side areas where people can sit or stop to chat; and centrally located corridors with wide openings directly into the rooms they serve.

Spaces that invite social contact are called "sociopetal." They subtly but powerfully encourage people to socialize, to greet each other, to notice one another during the day. Sociopetal spaces are lively, engaging places, in stark contrast with "sociofugal" spaces whose circulation systems emphasize separation and isolation. Sociofugal circulation systems keep people apart by using long corridors such as those found in hotels and rooms isolated by stairs and such. Sociofugal spaces are dull, depressing, and sometimes disorienting or frightening to anxious people who cannot easily see what is going on in the building. Developers of successful ADF residences understand the influences of architecture. Specialized design will play an important role in the future development of ADF housing, particularly affordable ADF housing for single parents or couples with children, who require functionally different and far more space than do single people.

It is not clear how quickly or in which specific directions ADF housing development will proceed. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 provided that every state receiving federal block grant funds for alcohol and other drug programs establish a revolving fund of at least 100,000 dollars to make start-up loans for sober housing. This was a foot in the door for ADF projects, although the relatively paltry funds involved have not provided much leverage by themselves.

In addition, government at all levelsfederal, state, or localhas a strong tendency to regulate and standardize the activities it supports and to demand accountability to its agencies rather than to other relevant constituencies, such as consumers of sober housing. Any governmental attempt to regulate the environment of sober housing raises far-reaching questions about the invasion of privacy, for ADF housing is by definition ordinary and protected from oversight not extended to other domestic households. The philosophy of ADF housing, and more practically, its necessary and salutary diversity, is not compatible with intrusive regulation.

Still, considerable potential exists for an explosion of interest and activity. As noted, ADF residences may play an important role in the reform of the system of services for people with alcohol and drug problems. Although interest in sober housing originated in the search for ways to support homeless and very low-income people completing residential treatment and recovery programs, the useful scope of sober housing may be much broader. Combined with various services in the surrounding community, perhaps it is a good alternative to expensive, traditional forms of residential treatment. Private insurance companies and housing entrepreneurs already are developing sober living arrangements that are attractive to the middle and upper classes, as well as to low-income people.

It is also possible that sober residences appeal to many more people than those actively engaged in treatment or recovery programs. Just as some university dormitories have become sober housing for self-selected students, perhaps sober residences will become part of a larger trend to reconfigure domestic living arrangements to fit our changed family demography and our changing styles of life. In the heyday of the temperance movement, the United States was littered with dry hotels and boarding houses that catered to a preference of style, not merely or only to prohibitionist sentiment. It is not hard to imagine a future in which likeminded citizens cause "dry" households to reappear.

(See also: Treatment, History of )


Mc Carty, D., et al. (1993). Development of alcohol and drug-free housing. Contemporary Drug Problems, 20, 521-539.

Molloy, J. P. (1990). Self-run, self-supported houses for more effective recovery from alcohol and drug addiction. DHHS Publication no. ADM 90-1678. Rockville, MD: Office of Treatment Improvement.

Oxford House, Inc. (1988). The Oxford House manual. Great Falls, VA: Author.

Wittman, F. D. (1993). Affordable housing for people with alcohol and other drug problems. Contemporary Drug Problems, 20, 541-609.

Friedner D. Wittman

Jim Baumohl

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Alcohol- and Drug-Free Housing

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