FITCHBURG — No matter where you’re coming from, you have to climb a long, steep hill to reach the sober home known as Crossing Over.
The program’s founder, Donald Flagg, jokes that the ascent to the off-white triple decker in this famously hilly city is the first test of whether a participant will succeed.
But these days, the steepest climb may be the one facing Flagg: He is locked in a dispute with city officials over zoning and safety regulations that he says could force him out of business.
Flagg has plenty of company around the state among fellow operators of sober houses, residences that offer a bridge between addiction treatment and independent living. There are 180 certified sober homes in Massachusetts — plus an unknown number operating without the voluntary certification — and they face growing pushback from city and town officials imposing safety regulations that can make the homes feel unwelcome.
Cities and towns — sometimes responding to neighbors’ complaints, sometimes carrying out routine code enforcement — are requiring sprinkler systems and other improvements that sober homes say they cannot afford.
Sober homes do not provide treatment, but help meet a critical need for housing among those new to recovery, who often can’t afford their own place. But the crackdowns are threatening to curtail an important option for people recovering from addiction who want to live in a supportive community away from the temptation to use again.
“It seems like it’s happening with more frequency,” said Richard Winant, a board member and former president of Massachusetts Alliance for Sober Housing, referring to the conflicts with city officials. “It’s not just sprinklers. It’s anything.”
If all sober houses had to install sprinklers — which can cost from $30,000 to $50,000 per house — the hundreds of homes in operation today would soon be reduced to a dozen, Winant said. “People need to understand: If they all went away,” he said, “you better start building more jail cells.”
Sober homes are privately operated by someone who leases or owns a house, typically charging residents $125 to $200 a week. The best homes have programs to help participants rebuild their lives and rules to prevent drug use and other problems.
But sober homes are unregulated, often operating in the shadows; some are filthy and dangerous, run by landlords who come by weekly just to collect rent.
In Fitchburg, officials say they’re just trying to keep residents safe.
Mark Barbadoro, the city’s building commissioner, recalled a sober home with no smoke detectors and blocked exits — a fire trap.
“We created rules to make a safe and healthy environment. Hospitals are needed but we still tell people what part of town they can build it in,” Barbadoro said. “It’s not that we don’t want [sober homes], we want them to follow the rules.”
Home operators and their lawyers assert that people with addiction, who are legally considered disabled, are exempt from such regulations under the federal Fair Housing Act and an antidiscrimination provision in state zoning law. Several court decisions have backed their assertion that residents of a sober house should not face any requirements that a family wouldn’t face.
But, amid a recent flood of lawsuits, other rulings have left “an open question,” especially on whether sprinklers are required, said Framingham lawyer Christopher J. Petrini, former president of the Massachusetts Municipal Lawyers Association.
This isn’t a theoretical debate for people like 22-year-old James Greatorex. He’s been living at Crossing Over for six months, his longest period of sobriety since he started using heroin as a young teen.
“This place has literally saved my life. I would not be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for them,” Greatorex said in a recent interview at the kitchen table in Crossing Over’s immaculate third-floor apartment.
He came there on the advice of a social worker at his addiction-treatment program, who thought Greatorex would benefit from Crossing Over’s highly structured program, which mandates twice-a-week drug testing, attendance at support group and house meetings, a schedule of cleaning and maintenance chores, and church attendance, among other rules.
On Greatorex’s first night, the dozen residents — all men — gathered for Bible study. As someone raised without religion, he figured he wouldn’t last long at this place.
But he noticed how happy everyone seemed, and gradually the program started to work for him. Today he has a job and plans to stay at Crossing Over for another six months, until he’s built up enough support outside to ensure he can stay sober.
“I’m genuinely happy,” Greatorex said, his voice filled with wonderment, his neck displaying a tattoo of the word “faith.”
“I was so numb to everything in my life ever since I was 13,” he said. “It really feels like l’m learning how to walk again.”
Flagg estimates that about half the Crossing Over residents are in recovery from opioid addiction and the other half struggled with alcohol. Twelve or 13 men live at the Nutting Street house, paying $575 a month for a double room, or $600 for a single.
In the program’s two years on Nutting Street, about 100 men have gone through the program, typically staying six months to a year. Three-quarters met their recovery goals; the rest were asked to leave for violating house rules. Those who resume drug or alcohol use while in the home must leave, but they’re not thrown out the front door: Flagg gets them into detox, or if that fails, he can find them a spot in a nearby shelter.
Even Barbadoro, the Fitchburg building commissioner, says that Flagg runs “a pretty tight ship.”
“I actually think he would be one of the better small sober homes providers in Fitchburg and I want to work with him,” Barbadoro said.
But the kind words haven’t prevented the city and Flagg from going head-to-head in two disputes that are being watched closely by sober houses statewide.
One involves Crossing Over’s first location, at 84 Mount Vernon St., which housed seven men from 2014 to 2017. Flagg challenged the city’s requirement for sprinklers in court, but in January, Worcester County Superior Court Judge Rosemary Connolly ruled against Crossing Over, asserting that the antidiscrimination provisions in state zoning laws do not apply to the state sprinkler act.
Flagg and the sober housing alliance have appealed Connolly’s ruling. Their lawyer, Andrew J. Tine, said the law is clear and predicted her decision would be overturned. If not, sober homes around the state could face new, costly requirements.
Meanwhile, after Crossing Over left the Mount Vernon Street house and moved into the 29 Nutting St. triple-decker, a city inspector declared that Flagg was using the property as a lodging house, not allowed in his residential zone. Flagg appealed to the city’s Zoning Board and plans to take the case to federal court if he doesn’t prevail.
Sober houses have come into the spotlight since 2016 when the state launched a voluntary certification process run by the sober housing alliance, which sets standards for safety and cleanliness, and requires each home to have written policies, grievance procedures, and codes of ethics.
Fitchburg, meanwhile, is trying to find a new location for Crossing Over, and Flagg welcomes the help. He’d love to move to a bigger space.
“They’re standing up for what they believe. We’re standing up for what we believe,” Flagg said of city officials. “I don’t look at them at the enemy.”