IRVING PARK — The blue-and-white house that was listed for sale on quiet, tree-lined Mozart Street in Old Irving Park has it all — a gourmet kitchen with granite countertops, sky-high ceilings over dark hardwood floors and four bedrooms, including a master suite with a bathroom spa.
When it didn't sell, the owner — like a lot of folks navigating a tough real estate market — put it on the rental market for $4,000 a month.
The tenants who moved in last year, though, aren’t your typical renters.
A for-profit company called A Fresh Start Sober Living Environments signed the lease and converted the place into a boarding house for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts fresh out of rehab. Currently, 12 men pay $175 a week to live in dormitory-style rooms. That's $4,400 more than the company is paying in rent.
Earlier this week, about 45 neighbors packed a community meeting attended by Ald. Deb Mell (33rd) to vent their concerns that the sober living house doesn’t have the proper zoning permits to operate on the block, among other things.
“Neighbors are up in arms because they’ve been operating for a year, and nobody knew about it,” said Michelle De Long, co-founder of the Irving Park East Neighborhood Foundation. “They need to have the proper zoning permit to operate this type of facility, and they didn’t get it, and it’s been running for a year.
"We’re not saying you can’t recover here. But the main concern is the transient nature of it — people moving in and out of the neighborhood potentially on a weekly basis, and that it’s a for-profit business,” De Long said.
Neighbors became aware of the sober living arrangement after A Fresh Start submitted applications for those permits, which the Zoning Board of Appeals is set to consider on Oct. 18.
Mozart Street neighbor Rob Elrick said that after attending the meeting, it became clear that “Fresh Start is operating this dwelling within a loophole that it would seem their own legal counsel has advised them is tenuous. I have little doubt they had hoped their petition would slip quietly through legal channels without notice, drawing little challenge from residents,” Elrick wrote in an email to the Irving Park East group. “The primary legal issue pertains to their illegal use of the property as a transient boarding house.”
The Mozart neighbors aren’t alone.
A Fresh Start operates six other sober living houses in Old Irving Park, Roscoe Village and Bucktown. Some of them have been open for years.
And in the 32nd Ward, three sober living houses — a two-flat at 2128 N. Winchester Ave., a three-flat at 3039 N. Damen Ave. and a single-family home at 2335 W. Diversey Ave. — also have caught the attention of neighbors and Ald. Scott Waguespack, who is pushing the city to deny special-use permits.
“We don’t have a problem with these kinds of services in our community, but the special use permit is a way for the zoning board to say where it’s appropriate and where it’s less appropriate,” Waguespack chief of staff Paul Sajovec said.
“They decided to open up without permission and ask forgiveness later, rather than go through the process, and that’s not the best way to go about being a good member of the community,” Sajovec said.
Juan Hernandez, executive director of A Fresh Start, said the company shouldn’t be legally required to obtain special-use permits because sober-living houses are considered “family homes,” and it’s against federal law to discriminate against people with disabilities, including recovering addicts.
“We’re not providing any medical or counseling services. These are family homes where people recovering live in supportive environments. Most of them have jobs or are in college or are working with their private therapists,” Hernandez said. “We’re not breaking any laws.”
“From our standpoint, there’s a process involved to review these locations and let the Zoning Board of Appeals decide if they’re appropriate,” he said. “These guys decided not to be beholden to the process and do what they want to do.”
Sajovec said A Fresh Start should either have a state license or be regulated by the city’s vacation rental ordinance, which allows property owners to rent for shorter time periods under certain regulations.
“You can’t have it both ways,” he said.
Calls and emails to Mell’s office seeking comment regarding the sober living house on Mozart were not returned.
Hernandez, a recovering addict who once was A Fresh Start client, said the sober living houses give people who have struggled with addiction — attorneys, firefighters, city and county employees, doctors and pharmacists — a safe place to go as they transition back into their lives after attending rehab.
“How can you tell people with a problem with alcohol that they can’t live in your ward, that they’re not wanted, that they should live in a lower-class part of the city?” Hernandez said. “That’s an inhumane way some of these people think. We’re not a party house. There’s no loud music. No domestic abuse. We don’t allow our people to disrespect the neighbors. If one of our people disrespects a neighbor, they’re gone the same day.”
Hernandez referred questions on why the company waited so long to file for a special-use permit to owner Larry Goldfarb, of Northbrook, who wasn't available for comment.
But Hernandez said company officials are discussing whether to rescind the permit applications and ask the city to instead make a “reasonable accommodation” within its zoning rules to allow the sober living facilities under the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, including recovering addicts.
“If the city doesn’t grant the request, we would take the matter to federal court, and in federal court we’d win,” Hernandez said. “Sober Living is a family home. It’s protected. Read the Fair Housing Act and read the case law. A city can’t use zoning to restrict sober living. But some people just don’t seem to care. They want us to go away.”