Sober Houses: Affordable Sober Living Meets the Promise of Profit

Sober Houses: Affordable Sober Living Meets the Promise of Profit

Sober Houses: An Extension of Long-Term Residential Addiction Rehab

Sober house, sober living environment (SLE), recovery residence, halfway house or three quarters house: whatever the “classification,” there is no doubt that alcoholics and drug addicts in their first years of recovery can and do benefit from safe, affordable, recovery-focused communal living as a continuation and progression of initial treatment. The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in a 2010 article about sober houses notes that for the addict in early recovery “lack of a stable, alcohol and drug free living environment can be a serious obstacle to sustained abstinence. Destructive living environments can derail recovery for even highly motivated individuals.” i

You can read the article here at:

Sober houses, in theory, are designed to provide the stability and drug free living environment that keep recovery on course, especially when they build upon the gains made during long term residential treatment and after the minimum 90 days of drug rehab recommended by the Center for Disease Control ( ).ii

In fact, researchers editorializing in the article “A Clean and Sober Place to Live: Philosophy, Structure, and Purported Therapeutic Factors in Sober Living Houses,” published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, write that “sober living houses are an excellent example of an underutilized modality that could help provide clean and sober living environments to individuals completing residential treatment, engaging in outpatient programs, leaving incarceration, or seeking alternatives to formal treatment.”iii

You can read the article here at:

What Are Sober Houses?

Sober living houses are essentially specialized rooming houses that cater to clean addicts and sober alcoholics– outside the context of treatment.iv The best sober houses promote and require active attendance at 12-step meetings (such as AA), abstinence, accountability, and peer support. Every sober house or chain of sober houses is different, but common practices include house rules, shared bedrooms and shared bathrooms, conduct contracts, curfews, random or scheduled drug tests, and mandatory community meetings. Houses don’t actually require celibacy, but it can often feel like they do. Rent (which usually includes utilities but not food) is typically paid weekly, in advance, by each resident.

Sober Houses Are NOT the Place to Start Recovery

In the fall of 2010, a Suffolk County, New York mother helped her 19-year-old son move into a facility with a promising sounding description: a “sober home.”

But four months later, that son was dead.

He had overdosed on heroin—in a place where drugs and alcohol were supposed to be forbidden.

His mother thought she was sending him to a safe place to deal with his addiction, but as she navigated New York’s labyrinth of oversight agencies, she realized she had let her son move to a place where no one was watching out for him.

“I have to live with this every second of my life … when you hear ‘sober house,’ you think ‘sober,’ but it clearly wasn’t a safe environment,” she said.v

You can read more about her story here:

The loss of a child to addiction is a heartbreaking tragedy, too often exacerbated by the addiction industry’s habit of overselling its services. Sober houses are no exception. When promised a safe environment and accountability, we are given — or create for ourselves — the impression that a qualified person in a position of authority is watching out for Timmy or Joey once they enter a sober house.

The “safe environment” promised by the sober house industry sounds comforting without actually giving a definition of “safe.” Given the chronic, manipulative, relapsing, life-long nature of addiction, it might be more honest to admit that there will never be a truly safe external environment for our addict. Safety – through the practices of recovery – becomes an internal state that the alcoholic or addict must cultivate from within, over time, through a progression of treatment and support levels.

Do we misinterpret a sober house’s promise of “accountability” as an institutional promise of supervision? I think we do. Supervision is crucial in early recovery, but under supervision the addict is a passive participant; supervision is imposed upon him. Accountability requires active and willing participation from the addict. The imposed supports and structures so necessary to early sobriety evolve during long term residential treatment, becoming more flexible as the addict grows in recovery and attempts to handle greater responsibility and freedom. This progressive ability to handle responsibility and freedom develops over time, ideally over a long period of time in residential treatment. Sober houses are the final residential phase of recovery in that their very lack of supervision allows Timmy and Joey to gain experience in watching out for themselves, with the help and support of their peers, before venturing out into independent living.

Regardless of their affordability, sober houses are not the place to start recovery; they are the destination before independent living.

Purpose Meets Profits

According to Dr. Leonard A. Jason, director of the Center for Community Research at DePaul University, well-run sober homes can be a positive step for those trying to turn their lives around. “If it’s a really well-run sober living home, that house could be a place of real health,” says Jason. But he adds this caveat: “It can be done right, but it can just as easily be done very wrong.”

Across the country, the unregulated industry of sober homes is increasingly under scrutiny. After yet another sober house overdose in York County, Pennsylvania, Chief Deputy Prosecutor Dave Sunday started looking into the sober living industry, specifically the management. “A lot of them (owners) are doing this for a good cause. A lot of them are fantastic individuals who have goals in mind that are fantastic and they want to help people who want to recover from the addictions that they have.” The problem however, is that’s not always the case. “There are a lot of people out there who take advantage of individuals and their addictions,” Sunday says.

Jeff Christensen, director of the Sober Living Network in Southern California, says the idea of sober homes is supposed to be about helping addicts get back on their feet. “If you want to call this a business, that’s great.  We don’t.  We call it service to these people.  If we get back to the fundamentals of what this about, it’s a matter of life and death for the people who live there.”

Christensen says the problem is anyone can open up a sober home. And it’s almost impossible to shut the bad ones down. That’s because addicts are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“These bad landlords are clever,” Christensen says. “They’re going, ‘Hey, if I say I’m a sober living, I can hide behind federal protections.'”

The full article “Renting homes to recovering addicts, for a profit” by Sarah Gross can be accessed at:

On the opposite coast, substance abuse counselors explained to The Boston Globe that some sober homes provide a supportive transitional environment for recovering addicts, but others simply pursue profits, and their loose environment often tempt addicts to resume their habits.

“They’re really just boarding houses, and as long as you pay rent, they don’t care,’’ said Nicholas Tenaglia, program director of the Men’s Addiction Treatment Center in Brockton, Massachusetts.

You can access the full article, provocatively titled “Seeking help but finding a scam in sober homes,” here:

The booming sober house industry even translates into profits for sectors beyond addiction services. California realtor Brian Wall says the sale of properties suitable for conversion into sober homes has become a lucrative business for him. A single sale can net him up to $40,000. He says the perfect sober house has lots of bedrooms, and is far away from nosy neighbors.

A bed in San Fernando Valley costs as much as $500 a month, and when the house is full, the owner can net over $10,000 a month. Wall says this kind of money is attracting people to the sober home business.

Many sober house entrepreneurs are themselves in recovery, and they will tell you it’s not about the money. Cristofer Justin owns and manages six sober homes near San Diego.

“There’s such a demand and there’s such a need,” Justin says. “It’s a great opportunity to be of service.”

Wall sounds skeptical of “do-gooder” motivations, hypothesizing the mindset of his sober house buyers: “If I’m not doing it to make money, then why am I doing it?” Wall says. “If I’m doing it for passion, that’s great, but that doesn’t help me open up 10 houses.”

The sober house boom has become a national trend that is particularly robust on the East Coast. In Boston, The Dorchester Reporter summarized that “Initial concern over the operation of sober homes was triggered in early 2007 when residents in the Fort Hill section of Roxbury reported unruly activity around Safe Haven Sober Houses, a group of 11 townhouses that had been converted into sober housing where as many as 12 people were living in each unit, each of them paying about $140 a week.

Inspectional Service Department workers secured an administrative warrant to enter the home and found up to four residents living inside in a single bedroom, “packed like sardines,” one inspector told the paper. Other issues involved garages and basements being converted into additional bed space. From later court documents, it was estimated that Safe Haven owner David Perry was earning $14,000 a week, or about $725,000 a year, in rental fees from more than 100 residents.”

You can access the full article, “SPECIAL REPORT: At ‘sober homes,’ issues of safety inside, safeguards outside,” here at:

Cristofer Justin — the owner of the six houses in San Diego who wants to be of “service” — finds recovering addicts at local churches, probation and parole offices, and through ads on Craigslist.

Tenants pay him up to $500 for a single bed.

To be fair, while profits in the sober house business can be astronomical, expenses can be daunting. Scott McCann of the recovery website brings some balance to the discussion of profits: “I know that it is tempting to look at the rents per bed, per month and the number of beds per home and come to the conclusion that sober living must be a gold mine for the taking.” But, he explains, owners face myriad challenges that eat into profit. While the potential gross rental income is high, the reality is that uncollected rents (or empty beds) can run as high as 40%. Because turnover is high as residents relapse, quit, or progress in recovery and move on, marketing and recruitment of new tenants is an ongoing challenge. Utilities costs to cover a single family home occupied by 10-12 adults who have very little incentive to conserve can be exorbitant. Maintenance — directly linked to the successful recruitment of new tenants — is constant; the cost of cleaning, repairs, painting, normal wear and tear, as well as deliberate damage by residents gnaws at profits. Responsible staffing, neighbor complaints, building and zoning code concerns, insurance, accounting, and property taxes further burden operational budgets. More than 50% of new sober houses fail within the first three years.

Clearly, sober house living can be an affordable option for addicts in the process of rebuilding themselves from the inside out. And, clearly, sober houses can generate huge profits for their owners. Like most every aspect of life in recovery, a balance can be found somewhere between affordability and profitability if we ask the question: Does this sober house benefit the addict in his/her recovery? Benefit to the person in recovery – rather than benefit to the person in ownership — should always drive the conversation, the decision making, and the direction a family takes in choosing or continuing with a sober house.

But the most vital step in considering a sober house is this: DO NOT LEAVE LONG TERM RESIDENTIAL DRUG REHAB until you feel truly ready to assume responsibility for your own recovery program, your own sobriety, your own abstinence, your own safety, your own wellness. Be honest enough to speak up if you are not yet ready for the level of independence you will be allowed in a sober living house. Addiction treatment – and most especially sober housing – is an industry. You do not need to be a cog in that industry. Have the courage to do what is right for you, even if that means standing still.

Because every decision from here on out requires courage, and courage requires practice.

Republished with permission from “When We Love An Addict: The Cost of Addiction”

Copyright 2014 Kay Ryan