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Bucktown 'Sober Living' Boarders Speak Out as For-Profit Agency Expands

By Alisa Hauser | February 26, 2014 12:59pm
 A chain of for-profit boarding houses is moving into West Town.
A Fresh Start Expands to West Town
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WEST TOWN —  A chain of for-profit boarding homes for adults who are in recovery has opened its eighth home in the city, this one in West Town. And while the location of the single-family homes in residential neighborhoods appeals to recovering alcohol and substance abusers, some people who live close to the ventures are mobilizing against them.

But as objections increase to these recovery homes — including a just-opened home operated by A Fresh Start Sober Living at 530 N. Marshfield Ave. in West Town  — the tenants at one Bucktown house operated by the same company say there is nothing to fear.

"People don't come [to A Fresh Start Sober Living] because they need a place to stay at night. They come here because it is a positive environment in a nice neighborhood," said Paul Kren, an options trader who rents a bedroom at the Bucktown facility.

 At right, a sign inside a Fresh Start Sober boarding home in Bucktown. At left, a new Fresh Start home in West Town.
At right, a sign inside a Fresh Start Sober boarding home in Bucktown. At left, a new Fresh Start home in West Town.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

Kren said he chose Bucktown because he had lived in the area several years ago before getting married and moving to Oak Park.

Kren's therapist and counselor are based in Oak Park, as is Kren's wife and their 7-year-old daughter, who the 44-year-old gets permission to see on overnight stays in Oak Park two nights each week.

Kren moved to the home at 2128 N. Winchester St. in Bucktown four months ago after completing an in-patient rehab program. He pays $900 per month to the for-profit, Roscoe Village-based Sober Living company to share a room with Brendon Guthrie, a 29-year-old recording engineer who formerly lived in Logan Square.

Guthrie, who also pays $900 monthly, works at a downtown music club and has special permission to break the midnight curfew due to his job's late hours.

Both Kren and Guthrie said they were choosing to live together for “accountability.”

The men are required to go to AA meetings four times weekly and pay weekly rent or "tuition" on time to the agency's owners, Juan Hernandez and Lenny Goldfarb, according to a tuition reminder sign taped to a kitchen cabinet. 

Additionally, it is the tenant's responsibility to "find the house manager for a drug and alcohol test," according to another sign.

The two house managers receive free rent in exchange for being house managers, Kren said.

There is no food provided in the homes — tenants buy and cook their own means. Nor is there on-site behavioral counseling.

Those conditions make it "purely a for-profit venture designed to take advantage of the disabled, not help them," according to a Bucktown resident who lives near the home and asked to remain anonymous.

An online petition started by the Bucktown resident against the home has garnered 57 signatures. Of the 57 who signed the petition, 56 are opposed to the home and half of the signatures are from neighbors living within 500 feet of what A Sober Livings calls "Winchester House."

The neighbors take issue with what they characterize as A Fresh Start's "lack of supervision, structure, control, counseling services and even meals" as well as its location, which the neighbor who started the petition said is "not appropriate" because it is near many Damen Avenue restaurants, bars and taverns.

While the neighbors who have lived near the Winchester Home for the past two years have a litany of complaints, from littering to parking violations, as well as loss of privacy from "large groups of loitering, transient strangers" as one put it, at the crux of their argument is that there is no special use permit needed to open a recovery home that does not provide on-site counseling.

Near the West Town location, resident Debbie Ryan is seeking to mobilize her neighbors to object to the agency's newest home: a 2,200 square-foot single family home at 530 N. Marshfield Ave.

"Everyone knows people that have struggled with addiction. I am not unsympathetic to the fact people are turning around their lives," Ryan said.

But, she said, "If a beauty salon is in a basement, you need a special use permit. There needs to be fair process."

The West Town home, which is not yet advertised on the agency's website, is the agency's ninth neighborhood home in the Chicago area. In addition to Bucktown, A Sober Living operates homes in Old Irving Park, Roscoe Village and Northbrook.

Ryan and her husband Dan object to a federal law that says residents of such recovery homes constitute a household and are protected under the Fair Housing Act for people with disabilities.

“Unrelated men that have never met each other and pay rent by the week, that's a household?" asked Dan Ryan, who is appealing to Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) and forming a petition.

Raymond Valadez, a spokesman for Moreno, said  "there is nothing we can do legally" about the homes because they are protected under Federal law for people with disabilities.

Paul Sajovec, a spokesman for Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd), whose ward includes the Winchester House, said Wednesday that the alderman is drafting a letter to the city to indicate that current city code "clearly intends to require transitional residences, also referred to as recovery homes, to apply for and receive a special use permit from the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals."

Since there are no counseling services provided on site at A Sober Living, the law for transitional residences does not currently apply to the agency. However, Sajovec added that he believes the law "does not prohibit municipalities from regulating such establishments so long as the regulation is reasonable and serves a valid public purpose."

Shannon Breymaier, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said of the new home on Marshfield Avenue: "We’re investigating how the building is being used and will then take appropriate next steps, if any are necessary."

Inside the Bucktown home, Kren said he has not met his neighbors in the four months he has lived there.

Though the home can accommodate up to 11 men, Kren said there are currently seven men living in the home.

When asked how he feels about neighbors who are objecting to the existence of the home, Kren said, "I understand because I was a homeowner, too."

But, he says, "The only reason we are living here is so we can all keep ourselves accountable."