The DNAinfo archives brought to you by WNYC.
Read the press release here.

After Years of Ducking Permits, For-Profit 'Sober Living' House Faces City

By Alisa Hauser | May 21, 2015 1:44pm

A Fresh Start Sober Living recovery home at 530 N. Marshfield Ave. (l.), and residents at a community meeting opposed to the home.  [DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser]

WEST TOWN — For more than two years, for-profit boarding houses for recovering addicts have been operating without permits or other city approval in Chicago neighborhoods — despite neighbor objections.

Now, a group of frustrated West Town residents is close to bringing A Fresh Start Sober Living in front of a city zoning board, where they will have to get a permit for one of their 11 houses or possibly get out.

A Fresh Start operates 10 other sobriety recovery homes in Bucktown, Irving Park, Roscoe Village and Northbrook.

A home at 530 N. Marshfield Ave., owned by Maria and Jeff Fletcher, has been rented out by the sober living house for 15 months. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts fresh out of rehab pay $175 a week to live in the home, which Fresh Start says houses 12 men.

Neighbors, however, say they've witnessed about 150 men pass through the home during that time, and suspect more than 12 people stay there on any given day.

The Fletchers could not be reached for comment.

Debbie Ryan, who lives next door to 530 N. Marshfield, described overflowing garbage, a drunken resident parking out front and "stumbling" into the home and waves of cigarette smoke coming into her kitchen window from the home's back patio.

"I have a first cousin who struggles with addiction. This is not about that," Ryan said. "We are against the high density, the transitional nature and the home operating more like a hotel or a youth hostel. Our 10-year-old daughter can no longer play outside in our backyard."

Alisa Hauser discusses why neighbors are pushing the city to act:

At a Chicago Grand Neighbors Association meeting on Tuesday, about 50 people living near the Marshfield House showed up to voice their concerns and figure out a battle plan for mobilizing their objections to the home.

Michael Franz, a lawyer who lives across the street from the home, said they will be going up against "zoning heavyweight" William J.P. Banks, a lawyer and former alderman who was hired by Fresh Start's CEO Lenny Goldfarb to get his for-profit company through the zoning process.

The longtime 36th Ward alderman (1983-2009), was the former chairman of the city's Committee on Zoning. He was also on a zoning reform commission, which was responsible for updating and rewriting the city's zoning ordinances.

Banks did not return several calls requesting comment.

Juan Hernandez, executive director of A Fresh Start, told DNAinfo previously that 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. 

Franz disagreed, saying that even without in-house therapy, the homes are still considered transitional residences.

"This is not a not in my backyard situation. The city chose not to enforce zoning when these homes all first opened, and we want them to get a special-use permit. If they don't get support, and if their special-use permit is denied, we would request that the judge order an eviction," Franz said.

Franz predicts that if A Fresh Start fails to get a permit to operate at 530 N. Marshfield Ave., it will have "a domino effect on all the other locations," including a home at 2128 N. Winchester St. in Bucktown that was named in a lawsuit filed last April that accused the home of operating without proper zoning and being a magnet for drug crime and harassment in the neighborhood.

This is far from the first time Fresh Start residences have faced neighbor backlash, but as Ald. Joe Moreno (1st) pointed out at the meeting, the Marshfield neighbors' persistence has put the case on the Zoning Board of Appeals' schedule.

Though A Fresh Start has started the permit process multiple times, it's withdrawn each time when neighbors vowed to fight it during the approval process.

“I want to applaud this community," Moreno said. "[Fresh Start] is going to the ZBA because of this group.”

He urged residents to show up at the hearing next week or send a letter to his office, whether they feel "good, bad or indifferent" about the Marshfield home.

Moreno would not say whether or not he supported granting a permit to the home, but Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) has been fighting for A Fresh Start to get permits for years.

“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 previously regarding A Fresh Start home in his ward. “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 reiterated his stance Thursday.

Pete Strazzabosco, the city's deputy Planning and Development commissioner, said community homes for group living do require special-use permits, which is what the Marshfield house is seeking.

Paul Kren, who used to live in A Fresh Start residence in Bucktown, said the home does not offer professional counseling and it is up to the residents to keep themselves accountable.

Kren, 46, said he lived in the Winchester Home from mid-November 2013 to April 2014 and worked full-time, taking the "L" to his job Downtown as a trader.

Kren said the home was his transition between in-patient rehab and going back to his wife and son in Oak Park. He's been sober for nearly two years.

"It was full accountability, or you had to leave. The house managers [who are also recovering addicts] do not want you bring any drugs in and screw up your recovery," Kren said. "I was an alcoholic for 30 years, and I will always be one. What happens inside a recovery house is just like anyone else's house and is nobody's business."

According to the Zoning Board of Appeals meeting agenda, the matter is scheduled to be heard by the five-member board at 2:30 p.m. May 28, 121 N. LaSalle St.

FROM L: The "Winchester House" at 2128 N. Winchester Ave. in Bucktown. A sign posted in the kitchen reminds the nine residents to pay their weekly "tuition" or rent of $200 each. [DNAinfo/Hauser]

For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: