Committee warned that bill could eliminate hundreds of recovery residence beds

Advocates at the State House in 2019 lobbying for drug policy reform | Dan Neumann

Members of the recovery community and other advocates lined up Monday to testify against a measure that they say could result in the closure of many recovery residences, a crucial pillar of the effort to reduce the avalanche of drug overdose deaths in Maine. 

LD 109, sponsored by Rep. Scott Landry (D-Farmington), drew little support at Monday’s hearing before the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and a mountain of opposition. The measure would repeal a bill passed by the Maine Legislature in 2019 that allowed recovery residences — shared places where people with substance use disorder can live together in an environment focused on peer support, community connections and staying drug-free — to be classified the same as any other family residence when it comes to safety regulations as long as they meet certain requirements.

Landry’s bill would repeal that provision and force recovery residences to meet “the life safety code requirements for similarly situated buildings and housing establishments.” Many testifying said the legislation would result in such residences being held to stricter fire-safety standards that aren’t in place for family homes, such as installing sprinkler systems. Meeting those regulations would be a financial burden that many recovery residences couldn’t handle, explained critics of the bill, and could result in the mass closure of such places at a time when their services are desperately needed due to the overdose and housing crises. 

Eric Skillings of Sanford, a person in recovery, said residences where people can live as they work to address substance use disorder are a crucial lifeline and shouldn’t be made more difficult to open and operate.

“Recovery housing lowers the recidivism rates,” he said. Adding, “If this law passes, it will devastate our recovery community that so many of us have worked so hard for.” 

Ron Springel, executive director of the Maine Association of Recovery Residences (MARR), also testified against the bill. He noted that just because recovery residences are considered family homes doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to any fire safety regulations. The group’s certification criteria for recovery homes includes numerous standards, Springel said, requiring that residences have fire extinguishers, exit signs, smoke detectors and fire drills, among other standards. 

Springel, himself a person in recovery, said members of MARR have reported that if LD 109 passes and sprinkler systems are required, more than 300 recovery residence beds would be lost and nearly 40% of recovery residences without a sprinkler system would have to close due to financial burden. 

That would come as the overdose epidemic in Maine continues to rage. Preliminary data from the first eleven months of 2022 shows that Maine has already surpassed the record number of overdose deaths from 2021. In those first 11 months of 2022, 649 people died from an overdose, even more than the 631 people who died in 2021. When December numbers are factored in, the overdose toll from the entire year will likely amount to nearly two deaths a day. 

Amid that crisis, advocates such as Doug Dunbar, another person in recovery, said making it harder for people to find effective treatment options would be disastrous. 

“We need more substance use disorder recovery supports, particularly sober housing options,” he said. “Any unnecessary barriers, like those made likely by LD 109, would slow or end the ongoing expansion of recovery residences.” 

Joshua Leonard, program director and operator of Portland Sober Living, added that LD 109 would serve to put people who are already vulnerable in an even more precarious situation. 

“I’m hard pressed to believe that this bill that would force nearly 35-40 residences to go under, is a bill that can be justified,” he said. “It stands to put 10 human beings in my house, and potentially over 400 people in recovery across the state, on the streets.”

Along with putting recovery homes at risk, opponents said LD 109 has the possibility to violate multiple federal laws. Because recovery houses and residents are considered a protected class, the Maine Office of the Attorney General advised in 2019 that failing to make “reasonable accommodations, namely non-enforcement of the sprinkler rules” for recovery residences would likely violate both the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

As a result, moving forward with LD 109 would open Maine up to lawsuits, said Courtney Gary-Allen of the Maine Recovery Advocacy Project. All of that, Gary-Allen said, would be for the sake of making changes to fire safety rules even though no one in Maine has died from a house fire while in a recovery residence.   

Rep. Laurie Osher (D-Orono) also testified against the measure. Currently, Osher said there are too few places for people in recovery to live in Maine. Passing LD 109 would only make a difficult situation worse, she said. 

“This bill compromises our ability to care for recovering Mainers, inhibiting the possibility that they will be able to find safe and stable housing with support services,” Osher said. “These Mainers are our family members and they need us to refrain from putting roadblocks in their path to recovery.”

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