NEW BEDFORD — The director of a sober house company has stirred strong neighborhood opposition by buying a grand historic home west of downtown, but at the moment he’s not saying what he has planned for the property.

“At this point we’re just taking it day by day,” said Hunter Foote, founder and executive director of the Worcester-based company Vanderburgh House, in a Sept. 13 interview. One of his limited liability corporations bought 52 Ash St., a 8,500-square-foot, six-bedroom historic manse, for $538,000 in July. 

Some residents of the Moreland Terrace National Register Historic District have lined the streets with protest signs to oppose the opening of any sober house in the neighborhood. Tuesday evening at City Hall, a City Council committee takes up their concerns. 

The neighbors say a sober house — a form of group living for people recovering from substance abuse — does not belong in their historic single-family home neighborhood, which happens also to be home to Mayor Jon Mitchell, state Rep. Antonio Cabral, state Sen. Mark Montigny and former Mayor Scott Lang. 

Mitchell wrote an Aug. 25 letter to the State Ethics Commission seeking advice allowing him to act despite “a potential conflict of interest” should a sober house be proposed in his neighborhood. 

Signs posted along Moreland Terrace protest two sober homes that may be established by two different companies on Ash Street and Hawthorn Street. Credit: Arthur Hirsch / The New Bedford Light

About 20 to 30 sober houses already operate in New Bedford. People working in addiction recovery stress the importance of stable housing and peer support in helping people stay sober after addiction treatment. 

Sober houses are not regulated under city or state law, although Massachusetts has a voluntary certification program run by a nonprofit. 

Neighbors have also expressed fears that a single-family house at 110 Hawthorn Street might become a sober house. But the organization that has leased the property told The Light that it had no such plans.

The Hawthorn Street property will be a seven-bed home for people with mental health disorders. The Lincoln, Rhode Island-based organization runs a variety of behavioral health programs for the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health. It will not treat patients with substance use disorder at the Hawthorn Street house, the organization’s regional director, Kimberly Mello, said.

Foote, of Vanderburgh, said one of his LLCs bought the Ash Street property without any particular designs on it. He said he was attracted to it because it had been on the market for more than a year, the price kept dropping, “we love historic houses,” and he buys property through LLCs for an array of projects.

You can help keep The Light shining with your support.

Vanderburgh runs sober houses in seven states, including one on County Street in New Bedford.

Foote said he would do nothing to compromise the historic integrity of the house at 52 Ash, built for textile tycoon William D. Howland in the late 19th century.

Otherwise, Foote said, the house’s future was up in the air, although he acknowledges that he has considered expanding sober house operations in New Bedford. 

An email sent to neighbors Sept. 8 by an agent who represents Foote offered to sell the six-bedroom house for $800,000 but said a deal had to be done by Sept. 30.

The email mentioned “the concerns of the neighbors about the proposed use of the property,” but in an interview with The Light, Foote declined to provide any details on those plans, or whether they included running a sober house as neighbors believed he would.

“The plan, if it isn’t purchased, is to do something,” he said.

The agent told residents that Foote was considering selling the property “despite all the work, effort, and expenses that they put into getting this up and running so far,” including a full architectural plan and feasibility studies, but Foote couldn’t provide details on the current state of his property. He said he did not know whether the building was occupied, or whether work had begun on maintenance to the building’s heating system — the email notes that a contractor had already been paid to do the work and it was Foote’s plan to “finish installing the heating system.” A city spokesperson confirmed that Foote had not obtained any permits for work on the property.

Foote was manager of Calderia LLC when the corporation bought the Ash Street house in July. State records show a change on Sept. 14, the day after he was interviewed by The Light: The manager is now Dawna Thomas-Foote, and Hunter Foote is resident agent, both shown at the same Worcester address.

Irene Schall, a former New Bedford city solicitor who has been active with the Moreland Terrace neighborhood group, is not buying Foote’s assertion that he has no specific plan for Ash Street. 

“It would be quite unusual to purchase a property and have no idea what you’re going to do with it,” said Schall. 

But former Mayor Lang said that if Foote is really not committed to a sober house — which Lang opposes — that’s good news. “The neighborhood would be happy to work with him to rehab it as a single-family home,” or perhaps as a condominium under a zoning variance, Lang said. “If he’s serious about investing, I think that’s great.”

Subscribe to our Weekender newsletter

Busy week? Catch up on the most important stories you might have missed with our new Weekender newsletter.

The neighbors who have formed the group say they’re concerned about the impact of a sober house on safety, traffic and property values. 

Walter Platt of Ash Street argued that the area — zoned for single-family homes and part of a historic neighborhood — is not the appropriate place for a house full of recovering addicts. 

Children walk to the two elementary schools within less than half a mile, he said. He asked what happens if sober house residents run afoul of house rules and have to leave. 

“If they do get bounced out for going back to their old ways, where do they go?” Platt asked. He argued that two former nursing homes in New Bedford are more appropriate locations. 

Rachael Thomas Higgins, whose backyard faces 52 Ash St., argued that sober houses undermine neighborhood stability. “It’s a revolving door of people in or out,” said Higgins. “Who’s your neighbor? Who’s there? How are they invested in building the community?”

The neighbors point to a study of home sales published in 2014 that they say supports their case, but it’s not clear how this research is relevant to sober houses. The study, which analyzed 10 years of home sales in central Virginia, focused on drug treatment centers, which are very different from sober houses. In a search of the 28-page study, the terms “sober house,” “sober home” or “recovery residence” do not even appear. 

A later study by three academic economists faulted the 2014 research for its method and its conclusions. This report, published in 2019, which also focused on addiction treatment, not sober houses, found no correlation between the presence of treatment centers and property values. 

The Moreland Terrace neighbors’ arguments have caught the attention of At-large City Councilor Brian Gomes, who put the issue on the council’s August meeting agenda. The council referred the issue to the Committee on Appointments and Briefings for this Tuesday’s 7 p.m. meeting.

Pssst! Got an important news tip? Contact us confidentially at

“It’s not a matter that we don’t want to help people,” Gomes said in an interview. “I think there’s proper places for these treatment centers, sober houses. Under the law they can almost go anywhere.” While sober houses stand in residential neighborhoods all over New Bedford, Gomes said, “I don’t think it’s appropriate.” Gomes suggested locating them in vacant mills instead.

The council has invited Foote to appear at Tuesday’s meeting, but Foote said he was not sure why. “They’re expecting a proposal,” he said. “We don’t have one.”

The Moreland Terrace district is restricted to single-family homes, but the zoning code allows “group homes” there by special permit granted by the Zoning Board of Appeals. 

City officials would have to be careful about any revision or new regulation that targets sober houses, lest they run afoul of housing laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The mayor has declined comment about the Ash Street property, except for his letter to the State Ethics Commission. The Ash Street property lies “three doors down from my house,” Mitchell wrote. Yet because of his responsibilities as mayor, Mitchell wrote, “it is unrealistic for me to recuse myself from the matter.”

“The establishment of a sober house may raise complex legal, permitting, and public safety issues,” wrote Mitchell. “I anticipate that I will have to allocate significant funding for the City’s response.” 

Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at

New Bedford Light reporter Grace Ferguson contributed reporting to this story. Email her at