Group home exists to help occupants beat addiction
By Joshua Maloni
Rows of extra chairs were wheeled into the Morgan Lewis Village Boardroom on Monday night to accommodate the large number of residents who filed into the Red Brick to learn more about an "Oxford House" on Creek Road Extension. After about a half-hour of civil discourse at the monthly board meeting, residents were told the group home is legal. Furthermore, the occupants can function as they have since the local program was established last September.
Mayor Anne Welch said, "Our building inspector did go over and inspect the house. We just have to go by the laws now. That's all we can do. We researched it. We listened to you, as residents. We listened to Mr. (Garold) Acker, who is the owner. Our attorney researched it. Where we're at, right now, is the law is the law."
Eight people reside in the Village of Lewiston Oxford House. These individuals are recovering alcohol or substance abuse addicts who are living together to achieve and maintain recovery, while following a strict code of conduct established by Oxford House Inc.
The original Oxford House formed in 1975, was incorporated in Delaware, and operates out of Maryland. It is described as "a self-run, self-supported recovery home concept and standardized system of operation that served as the model for the self-run, self-supported group recovery homes. ... Any group of six or more recovering individuals of the same sex can request an Oxford House charter."
Scott Amsdill is one of the eight people living in the Lewiston home. Speaking to neighbors and Village of Lewiston Board members, he explained occupants elect individuals to serve in leadership and fiduciary roles. They strive to become contributing members of society. Accordingly, alcohol or drug use is strictly prohibited.
Oxford House Inc. has three "basic conditions" for issuing a charter. A group must be democratically self-run and follow the Oxford House Manual; members must be financially self-supporting, with each person paying equal shares of household expenses (including rent) in a timely manner; and residents must immediately expel anyone using alcohol or drugs.
"We're not here to work against everyone, we're here to help change our lives, to be a part of the community," Amsdill said.
"I'm glad to hear that," Welch replied. "Talk to your neighbors and maybe they won't have as much fear of having you next door to them. Just be neighborly. And, as long as you go by the laws, then they shouldn't have any problem with you."
Buffalo special education teacher Cherie Burau said, "The classification of addiction falls under 'disability.' I've worked with several families in Lewiston and in Youngstown and in Niagara Falls. It is a problem. It is here. And I have also experienced the rules and the regulations that take place in an Oxford House. The group home members must meet a certain criteria that conforms to the community. ...
"To have an Oxford House in this community, I think, would be a blessing."
Amsdill said Niagara County already had eight Oxford House locations. He explained the local chapter - of which he serves as chairman - meets at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
John Gadawski, also of Creek Road Extension, said, "I don't think any one of the neighbors has said that they're against the house. All we're asking is for compliance according to the safety regulations."
Village counsel Joseph Leone explained eight people wouldn't normally be permitted to live within one group dwelling in an R-1 (single-family, low-density) residential district like Creek Road Extension. However, he explained people recovering from alcohol or drug addiction are categorized as "handicapped" under the federal Fair Housing Act. As such, they are afforded anti-discrimination protection and are "entitled to 'reasonable accommodations.' " Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the City of Edmonds V. Oxford House Inc. that a group home is permitted in an R-1 district.
Steve Sargent has lived on Creek Road Extension for almost 30 years. He asked, "What official correspondence (from) the Oxford House Inc. of Silver Springs, Maryland, has been received by the Village Board that such a facility was to be opened in the Village of Lewiston, New York? Additionally, how many beds were being considered for the facility? Upon review of the above correspondence, why were the affected residents of the immediate area not informed of the proposed facility?
"If I put up a shed, my neighbors get a letter from the village clerk, asking if it's OK if I put up a shed."
Sargent spoke, he said, on behalf of himself and a half-dozen neighboring families. Some of those people attended Monday's meeting.
Welch said she only learned of the Oxford House upon taking office earlier this summer.
"We are aware now, and we've brought this to the people and asked for your comments. Now we're dealing with this and making you aware of the laws that we have researched," she said.
Sargent referenced a letter from Village of Lewiston Building Inspector Ken Candella that stated the local Oxford House is required to change occupancy to R-4 (higher density) and adhere to Section 901 of the Fire Protections Systems of the International Building Code. Sargent asked, "Who's enforcing these codes? And when a facility is out of compliance, how much time do the owners have to become compliant?"
Leone responded, "I don't think that anyone, any person, any family who has a single-family residence, can operate that residence in a way that is contrary to our building codes. Everyone needs to comply with that. I don't think the fact that they are rehabilitating, or housing, if not rehabilitating, handicapped people exempts anyone from complying with safety issues."
Sargent asked, "And they're in compliance with all of it?"
"Yes," Welch replied.
Candella said he was waiting to hear back from Acker's attorney about proposed structural changes, including an egress window.
Welch said she would keep residents posted.