EDITORIAL: Justifiable worry in Lower Mills

This week’s news that an investment group wants to convert four Washington Street properties into a “sober living” campus for veterans has been met with skepticism and resistance from merchants and neighbors in Lower Mills. There is good reason for people in that neighborhood – and in any community – to be worried about the potential impact of such a concentration of recovery units in one neighborhood.

The issue of whether or not so-called “sober homes” belong in our community is not at question here. They are needed. Dorchester and, indeed, most communities need and want well-run sober living residences because they serve our friends, family members, and neighbors recovering from an illness. Dorchester is home to many “sober homes” along with other group homes that assist people attempting recovery.

But, the concerns raised in Lower Mills in the last week regarding a proposal to site 28 units of sober housing in four buildings along Washington Street speak more to the continued lack of regulation of an industry that is prone to abuse and problems. Those concerns are fueled by a lack of experience and solid answers from the team that wants to introduce this project into Lower Mills.

The Reporter and Northeastern University’s Watchdog New England team documented some of the systemic problems in the sober home industry in a series of articles in 2010 that showed how Massachusetts— like most states— is behind the curve in setting up effective checks and balances at the state level. Right now, the only control over these sorts of homes is the city of Boston’s Building Code, which sets parameters on how many people can live in a given amount of space under one roof. No one can say at this point how many sober homes are operating within city limits.

In 2010, the Legislature directed the Department of Public Health to undertake a study of “sober homes” across the state and gave the agency until the end of 2011 to complete it. That study has not been completed. Instead, local authorities and civic leaders are compelled to deal with proposals like the one in Lower Mills on an ad hoc basis and without any regulatory framework to gauge the track record – or lack thereof – of the operators.

In this instance, there are ominous signs that the people who want to set up this operation in Lower Mills did not start off on the right foot. City inspectors last month ordered that renovation work underway in one of the Washington Street properties be stopped due to a lack of a permit. This week, John Ingram, the key man behind the proposal to site the sober units in Lower Mills, was invited by the local Boston Police captain to an informal meeting to discuss his plans to screen tenants. Ingram told the police he wasn’t available to meet this week.

Ingram and the family that is leasing the space to him — the Molloys of the longtime funeral home business— did meet with merchants from Lower Mills last week. But this meeting took place a full three months after both parties had entered into a three-year lease agreement that started in January. The sometime contentious sitdown last week left merchants with more questions than answers over just how well-run this large-scale development could be.

Dorchester has a right to be wary of the potential impacts of such a large proposal that does not seem to have the benefit of experienced managers in the mix. We hope that those who have proposed this idea will re-think the wisdom of it. And we urge the state to speed up its efforts to regulate an industry that could disproportionately impact city neighborhoods.

– Bill Forry

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