Saturday, April 13, 2024

Help for sober houses, new opposition to the Wildflower plan and other items of news and note

Sober House help on the way?

To frustrated politicians in South Florida cities trying to keep sober houses from ruining neighborhoods, the federal delegation that visited Delray Beach on Monday must have looked like the cavalry.

They work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Gustavo Velasquez is the assistant secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Jeanine Worden is the associate general counsel for Fair Housing. Working with others, they could bring long-awaited relief to cities that consider themselves under siege from sleazeball sober home operators who exploit recovering addicts and turn quiet streets into drug shooting galleries.

That relief would be a rewrite of the 1999 joint statement by HUD and the Department of Justice (DOJ) that, under the Fair Housing Act as it applies to “group living arrangements,” local governments are prohibited “from making zoning or land use decisions or implementing land use policies that exclude or otherwise discriminate against protected persons, including individuals with disabilities.” Among those considered disabled are persons in recovery from substance abuse.

In 2007, Boca Raton lost a four-year fight in federal court to restrict sober houses to areas zoned for multi-family housing and to hospital districts. In 2012, Delray Beach settled a lawsuit by the Caron Foundation, which had set up sober houses in beachside mansions. Though the 1999 statement said the Fair Housing Act “does not pre-empt local zoning laws,” neither Boca nor Delray nor any other South Florida city has wanted to try a similar ordinance without a change in the statement.

Credit U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, for making Monday’s meeting happen. Frankel’s district runs from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale. It likely includes more sober houses than any other in the nation.

A year ago, after consulting with Velasquez and others, Frankel wrote to HUD Secretary Julian Castro and Attorney General Loretta Lynch. U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, who also represents Palm Beach and Broward counties, signed the letter. It contained questions on “topics that are not adequately addressed” in the 1999 joint statement. Basically, it was an SOS message to Washington from South Florida.

Monday’s itinerary began with a tour for the HUD delegation of sober house-plagued neighborhoods. Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein, who was on the van, said they drove past “52 houses in the first 15 seconds.” How does he know? “You know.” Glickstein would say only that the stretch is on Swinton Avenue south of Atlantic Avenue.

Later came a roughly two-hour meeting for the HUD administrators with city officials from Riviera Beach to Hollywood. Unfortunately, that meeting was closed to reporters. A news conference followed, but Velasquez left after making a statement and did not take questions.

Still, Frankel said the visit “shocked” Velasquez. As Glickstein said, when HUD and DOJ issued that statement, there were no sober houses. Now, they’re all over Delray Beach. They’re throughout South Florida, but no one knows for sure how many there are. Anyone can set one up.

At the meeting, Frankel said, “No one said, ‘no sober homes.’ “ The goal is “finding a balance” and ensuring “assimilation” of sober houses into neighborhoods. In some cases, that has happened. In too many cases, it hasn’t.

The Delray Beach Drug Task Force has tried to strike such a balance, so good sober house operators can provide a necessary service. Frankel correctly called her effort “consumer protection.” Those in recovery are vulnerable. Marc Woods, Delray Beach’s chief rental inspector, says parents in distant cities paying for their children’s supposed care “have no idea what’s not going on.”

Frankel said lawyers for HUD and DOJ would review the proposed changes to the statement. Boca Raton officials know how important it is for both to agree. The Department of Justice filed a related lawsuit in the city’s case, raising Boca’s legal costs from $1.8 million to $2.3 million. Frankel said the changes could be ready by August.

Among the issues will be location of sober houses and capacity. “It’s not about the number of houses,” Glickstein said. “It’s about the number of beds.” Frankel said she and city officials were “clearly told” that the Fair Housing Act allows cities to “deny a public accommodation when it changes the character of the neighborhood.” She said, “We want to empower local governments.”

If successful, this approach will be quicker and more practical than asking Congress to change the Fair Housing Law. First, the current Congress—with its far-right Freedom Caucus—can’t do anything productive. Second, this Congress would try to strip legitimate protections from the Fair Housing Act.

HUD officials understand the danger of opening up the law. Frankel’s talk of filing legislation may have helped to encourage the department to set up Monday’s meeting.

Of those HUD officials, Glickstein said, “I don’t think they understood how powerless we are.” Delray Beach and other cities now can produce the “evidence” of harm that U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks said was lacking when Boca Raton brought its lawsuit. Perhaps the sleazy operators are nervous. Let’s hope that they are even more nervous in August.

Boca loses building head

Boca Raton is losing the city’s top building official because of. . .health insurance.

The son of Development Services Director Ty Harris needs an expensive drug that the city’s self-insurance health plan doesn’t cover. Harris told me Wednesday that he has exhausted all his appeals with the carrier, and so must get a job where coverage includes the drug. Harris intends to stay in the area because he told his son that he wouldn’t move him again so soon. Harris joined Boca nearly a year ago, coming from Charlotte County.

Harris’ departure is a loss for the city. Boca Raton had been processing building permits faster, which has been a city council priority for years. The search for Harris took roughly two years. Now Boca must start over, because of nothing related to Harris’ work—just his insurance.

The anti-restaurant posse

A group of Boca Raton residents is proposing an ordinance that would prevent the city from leasing the Wildflower property for a restaurant.

Of course, the proposed ordinance doesn’t say that. It says, “All city-owned land adjacent to the Intracoastal Waterway shall only be used for public recreation, public boating access, public streets, and city stormwater uses, only.” Perhaps the second “only” is meant for emphasis.

The Wildflower property is two-plus acres along the Intracoastal at Palmetto Park Road. For more than two years, the city and Hillstone Restaurant Group have been negotiating a lease and site plan. Nearby residents oppose the idea, fearing more traffic. Having failed to persuade the city council, they propose this ordinance.

To have the council consider the ordinance, the petitioners need to collect signatures from 1,209 registered voters—15 percent of the turnout in the last city election, which took place 14 months ago. The supervisor of elections must verify the signatures from voter rolls.

If the petitioners succeed, the ordinance would go to the council at its next meeting. The city attorney’s office would review the ordinance, and the council would vote on whether to place it before the voters.

The timetable is tight. The council has just one meeting in June and July. The ballot language deadline for the primary election—when voters will decide whether to raise mayoral and council salaries—is June 24. For the November general election, it’s Aug. 26.

Like the Florida Supreme Court and state constitutional amendments, the council could reject the ordinance because it is legally flawed and/or deceptive. As noted, the proposed ordinance disguises its true intent. The petitioners want Boca Raton to use a $7.5-million piece of land for basically nothing, rather than lease it for a project that would more than return the city’s investment and provide a gathering spot within walking distance of all the new downtown residences.

This is all the more reason for city staff to prioritize its review of Hillstone’s new proposal and get it to the council no later than that June meeting, if not sooner. Cities have sovereign immunity, but Hillstone would not go quietly if this ordinance blocked a project on which the company has spent a considerable amount of money.

Tax increase change in plans

The Palm Beach County Commission finally got smarter about the proposed sales tax increase.

On Tuesday, the commission approved 5-2 a new plan that would eliminate $161 million for economic development and cultural projects. The one-cent increase over 10 years now would provide $1.35 billion for the school district, $810 million for the county and $540 million for cities, all for infrastructure improvements.

The Cultural Council of Palm Beach County had inserted itself into the program, claiming that the cultural component would increase support for the overall plan. Instead, the cultural money became controversial.

Only through legal maneuvering could private arts groups be eligible for this public money. The cultural council’s board decided which groups would get the money, most of which would have gone to Boca Raton and West Palm Beach. That displeased commissioners from districts whose residents would be paying, not getting.

As for that “economic development” money, it got into the plan after the Legislature included no new money in the state budget for Enterprise Florida. Nothing, however, prevents the county from allocating incentive money to corporations as needed.

Commissioner Steven Abrams represents Boca Raton and Delray Beach. He had voted against the previous iterations. He supported the new one. As Abrams said Wednesday, the proposed ballot language hadn’t mentioned culture. To him, that meant the culture piece was a problem, not an asset.

If the school board approves the new version, which would bring the schools more money, the county commission will take a second, final vote on May 17.

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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