We haven’t seen a lot of profiles in courage during New Bedford’s 2023 municipal election.
It’s been a lot of “I’m very good at constituent services,” and “I’m really, really against Parallel Products.” That sort of thing.
Providing good constituent service and opposing a disastrous trash-gathering operation for a site in a residential neighborhood are good positions to take. But they do not require courage.
So I was struck at the NAACP debate last week when 30-year-old Zach Boyer, a human services worker from Coastline Elderly Services, spoke a little truth to power in New Bedford.
I was moderating the debate and I had asked the Ward 5 candidates — Boyer and former Council President Joe Lopes — about the hot-button issue of a developer who has talked about installing a “sober home” in a sprawling mansion on Ash Street, just at the foot of Moreland Terrace, arguably the most affluent street in the city.
It’s a neighborhood that is home to former mayor Scott Lang, current Mayor Jon Mitchell and state Rep. Tony Cabral, among other prominent city residents.
Over the past month or so, those opposing a possible sober house in this neighborhood have produced red “NB Strong” signs, which somehow in New Bedford are not about things like a terrorist attack like they were in “Boston Strong” or about a mass murder as they were last week in “Lewiston Strong,”
No, “NB Strong” has become co-opted, in my opinion, to be about at best historic preservation, and at worst about a fairly typical NIMBY attitude.
Boyer rose to the occasion in what he had to know was, in all probability, an unpopular stand. He backed what is undoubtedly the ideal position — that the city should work with the developers of half-way houses to run programs that help people get better and return to being productive members of society.
“I attended the meeting that the community put together that was in opposition to sober homes and to be quite honest, I was pretty disappointed with the language I heard as we talked about these folks within our community,” he said.
Boyer is not completely naive. He acknowledged that there can be problems with sober houses, but he placed himself squarely on the side of allowing such establishments, even in high-end places like the mansion neighborhoods of New Bedford. It took courage.
“I don’t think there’s a single person in this room who hasn’t been affected by the crisis of addiction in our community,” Boyer said. “And I think we really need to focus on bettering the continuum of care locally so that we can actually address the root causes of addiction.”
Boyer’s opponent in the Ward 5 race, former Ward 6 Councilor Lopes, is not some knee-jerk opponent of the concept of sober houses. He has a track record as a moderate councilor and he said he understands the need. But having some experience with the group homes when he was the Ward 6 official, he said he knows that these establishments are not all well run.
“They are a nuisance when they are not operated properly, especially when, if you have one, they are not doing the drug and alcohol testing that they said they’re going to do,” he said in answer to the same question as Boyer’s.
Lopes is correct about the problem.
The challenge with group rehabilitative homes for people suffering from alcoholism or drug addiction is that the city can’t target zoning regulations toward sober homes because substance use disorder is rightfully considered a protected disability.
Lopes pledged to work with the state and federal legislative reps to get the law changed. That’s the right idea, but it will be an awfully big lift to accomplish. It will be difficult to come up with a law that is fair to all. Perhaps a better regulatory and oversight system for the homes themselves is what’s needed.
In the meantime, as we’ve seen from The New Bedford Light’s reporting, there are 20 to 30 sober houses and similar facilities already located in New Bedford, no doubt the overwhelming majority of them in places less affluent than Moreland Terrace.
A few days after the NAACP forum, the same issue came up at the North End Neighborhood Association’s debate for the Ward 1 seat.
Incumbent Brad Markey also said he had encountered problems with sober houses in the Far North End. He said as the group residences have grown up, people often don’t know they’re there, but that when there’s trouble they do.
Markey talked of one home where the residents were drinking in the backyard and tossing refuse into the neighbor’s yard.
“Some are good and some are bad, but you can’t control them,” he said, outlining the same lack of regulations as Lopes had.
Markey’s Ward 1 opponent, Leo Choquette, was fairly apt, if a bit politically clumsy, in saying: “Nobody in Ward 1 is going to want it.”
The city councilors in the center-city wards — 2, 3, 4 and parts of 6 — could tell Choquette that many folks in their neighborhoods also don’t want them.
Choquette and Markey, like Lopes, were talking about the legitimate concerns of people in residential neighborhoods confronted by a type of housing that has hitherto been either unknown or limited to low-income city neighborhoods.
It is not unreasonable for folks to worry about their property values when group homes are located nearby.
Choquette noted that folks’ property values are at stake and that some people might try to flee neighborhoods with sober homes. But he acknowledged that it is a question of competing interests. Balancing the benefits to those suffering from addiction with the detriments to those living in quiet neighborhoods.
“What can the council do?” he asked, seeming to wonder how you can solve the problem.
It’s fair to say that we’re all wondering the same thing as Choquette.
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The rise of the sober home phenomenon spotlights the changing way we think about the illness of addiction, both with those who are afflicted with it and those who want to be protected from it.
Add into the mix the fact that running sober houses, like everything else, has become a big business. Vanderburgh House, the company that talked about locating one on Ash Street, shows photos of 35 homes of various levels of expense on its website, some of them located in quite impressive dwellings. The site refers to a Sober House Directory listing locations for scores of the establishments across New England and hundreds beyond in the country as a whole.
I don’t know what the answer is to the competing needs of those in recovery and those living in otherwise stable neighborhoods. Even if they were better regulated, enforcing transgressions can be expensive. But it seems something has to be done to enact more serious penalties for those whose operations violate the rules of civilized behavior.
I was encouraged that Boyer, in the face of such strong political crosswinds, is a young man who was willing to at least speak for the recovery community.
In a later interview with The New Bedford Light, he said he is troubled by recent public discussions of sober houses in the city, which he said included language that shuns addicted people.
“We need to treat it as a public health issue,” he said. “If we don’t do it, what are we doing? We’re ostracizing people from our community.”
Boyer also said he is aware he might be taking a risk by defending the sober homes: “It might be politically dangerous to run on that.”
As we approach this important 2023 election in New Bedford, I think it’s good to remember that politics should be about more than easy answers, and glib campaigning, about more than catering to the easy votes.
Playing to the loud voices in a crowd is a time-honored tradition in politics and most of the city candidates are doing that to one extent or another. Still, when confronted with the issue at the recent debate, all of the candidates acknowledged its complexity.
I did appreciate the one candidate who talked about sober homes from the viewpoint of the constituency that doesn’t find it easy to advocate for itself. Those in the throes of addiction.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at email@example.com.