Dispute over house in Catonsville for those recovering from addiction continues

More than two months after an administrative hearing to determine the legality of a home for recovering alcoholics and drug addicts was postponed in favor of private negotiations between Baltimore County lawyers and the home's owner, an agreement still hasn't been worked out, and the "issue is at a stalemate," according to Scott Alpert, the owner of the residence on Mellor Avenue in Catonsville.

The dispute began years ago, when the county began slapping Alpert with fines for having three unrelated adult tenants living in the home. County code limits the number of unrelated adult tenants in a single residence in the county to two.

Alpert, a licensed clinical counselor who owns and operates Central Maryland Addiction Counseling in Ellicott City, contended that his tenants – who are all clients of his trying to maintain sobriety and are receiving counseling – are exempt from the county's code under the federal Fair Housing Act, which requires that people with disabilities, including substance addictions, be provided reasonable accommodations. .

Confronted with legal precedent supporting Alpert's contention, the county postponed the hearing in November and county lawyers began working with Alpert and his attorney, his father, Stanley Alpert, to find a resolution that assured both sides were complying with federal, state and local law.

That process continues, and County Attorney Michael Field said he feels confident a resolution will be found.

"We're still talking to them about resolving the issue," Field said. "We feel pretty good here about being able to resolve this in cooperation with them."

The county recognizes the federal law providing people with disabilities reasonable accommodations to local codes, said Assistant County Attorney Sabrina Chase.

More specifically, the county acknowledges the precedent set in the 1995 case City of Edmonds v. Oxford House in which the Supreme Court ruled that local ordinances that use family definitions for capping the number of tenants in a home are subject to the FHA and should be reviewed for discriminatory intent or effect, Chase said.

"All we are truly asking Mr. Alpert to sign is an agreement that says the tenants qualify under the precedent set by Oxford House," Chase said.

But Alpert sees it differently.

"They're telling me that I have to certify or present documentation of each (tenant's) disability, which is a complete violation of their confidentiality," Alpert said. "I don't think they have a right to people's records of disability as the Baltimore County Office of Law."

Alpert said the county also wants him to agree to be "personally responsible" if one of his tenants happens to relapse and do drugs at the home, which he said is a ridiculous request.

The broader issue, Alpert said, is that the county is trying to get him to enter into a binding contract with all sorts of stipulations in order to operate a home that runs the same way as many other multiple tenant residences in the county, a requirement that would single him out and diminish the affordability of the housing for his tenants.

"I wouldn't have a problem with it, if it was regulation and everybody had to do it. But I think the federal government would have a problem with it, and I think the state government would have a problem with it," Alpert said. "It's selective. It's way above and beyond, in terms of what their scope of authority is."

By trying to regulate "transitional housing" on a case-by-case basis, the county is undermining the ability of private citizens, like himself, to provide housing for people recovering from addictions, Alpert said.

According to Alpert, transitional housing is a service that is critically needed and one the state and county have failed to provide in any adequate way.

"They have to decide one way or another," Alpert said. "Do they want transitional houses or don't they?"

Chase said the county is only asking Alpert to comply with federal law, to show there will be no drug use, that his tenants are in recovery, and that they are disabled as defined under the FHA.

"We're currently seeking an agreement (in which Alpert) says, 'Yes, we will comply with the federal law under which we are seeking an exception,'" she said.

Alpert complained that the county has tried to get him to sign a confidentiality clause so he can't talk about the agreement.

Chase said that such language was in an early draft of the agreement. The current version only includes a nondisclosure clause that would protect the "medical confidentiality of patients in legal drafts."

Chase said the county hopes an agreement will be reached soon.

"In essence, we are looking to accommodate the exemptions (Alpert) is requesting," she said. "What we're asking for is incredibly reasonable."

Alpert disagreed. He said if the county doesn't compromise soon, he may have to sell the house, which would be a real loss to his current and future tenants.

"They said to drop this case, I have to sign this (agreement), and there's no way I'm going to sign something like this," he said.

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