Bill Seeks to Ensure Sober-Living Residences Are More Than Boarding Houses

Assembly measure would set up credentialing and compliance standards for recovery residences across the state
Rooms for rentCredit: Gerd Altmann via Pixabay
Rooms for rent

Lawmakers continue to push for greater state oversight of recovery residences in New Jersey, as well as for programs that align with national best-practice standards. The driver, in both cases, is the ongoing need for quality facilities to help people address their addictions over the long term.

The Assembly Human Services Committee gave full support Monday to a bill (A-2270) that calls for a credentialing system for recovery residences based on guidelines crafted by the National Alliance for Recovery Residences (NARR). The voluntary program would involve annual state certification and criminal background checks for administrators and some staff.

Current recovery residences or sober-living homes — which provide housing, peer support and other nonclinical services to people after they finish in-patient addiction treatment — would not have to be recertified. But the draft bill does outline how the state can work with treatment providers to steer people to approved recovery programs when they’re needed.

The legislation, sponsored by Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo and John Armato (both D-Atlantic), dates back nearly two years; it passed the full Assembly with unanimous support in December 2018. Re-introduced in late January for the current two-year legislative session, a companion version cleared the Senate health committee last week and is now pending before that house’s budget panel.

“In our district, we have a growing number of sober-living homes that have been looking for the state to offer a certification program,” Armato said. “Sober-living homes are vital to a large number of people in recovery and they must be regulated as such; not as boarding houses, which many of these types of homes are currently experiencing.”

Serving a pressing need

With tens of thousands of New Jersey residents going through treatment for substance-use disorders each year — many without a safe or supportive home to return to when — there is a significant need for recovery residences, experts note. More than 3,000 people died here of drug-related causes in 2019, a decline of roughly 3% over 2018, according to the state.

For years, recovery residences in New Jersey were regulated under the same state guidelines as boarding houses, which must meet certain health and safety standards. Alternatively, they operated under a national model from the 1970s in which residents run the facility on their own. In 2018, the state added a new licensing category for “Cooperative Sober Living Residences” that exempted these sites from some group-home requirements, but also limited capacity to 10 residents or fewer and banned operators from providing services like laundry and transportation, which can be critical for those returning from treatment.

There are now more than 80 sites holding this license, according to the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the program. But lawmakers and some addiction providers said the current system has stifled some well-meaning operations and discouraged the development of other effective programs. Others note it also has failed to weed out questionable operations, like the Long Branch program detailed in an NJ.com story last month.

More than a bed to sleep in

“A sober living home is significantly different from a boarding house, as they offer supervision and support, not just a bed to sleep in,” Mazzeo said. “The goal of this bill is to make it easier for sober-living houses to operate in the state and continue the great work they have been doing thus far.”

The legislation requires the DCA to develop the credentialing system based on NARR guidelines and administer certifications each year for facilities that choose to participate. The department would have four months to develop the process and six more months to get it up and running.

Two members of the Human Services Committee, Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Joann Downey, who chairs the panel, suggested during Monday’s hearing that it also might make sense to engage other state agencies like the departments of health and human services. That would help ensure these residences coordinate with other recovery services to better support those involved.

“I know it’s not supposed to be a treatment home,” Vainieri Huttle said, but resident safety is much more than just checking “bricks and mortar.”

Under the current draft, the DCA would need to determine which recovery-residence staff would be subject to criminal background checks and draft the requirements for credentialing. It would also need to create a program to certify recovery-residence administrators, if they sought the designation and met the standards. The agency would also need to inspect the facility and establish a process for monitoring the program; if violations are identified, the DCA can suspend the certification.

Finally, the measure calls for the department to publish an online list of all certified residences and to keep this current as more are credentialed.  Once this list is compiled, treatment providers would be prohibited from referring a current or previous patient to a recovery residence unless it is certified through the program or owned and operated by a licensed treatment provider.