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Massachusetts Law and Sober Houses

Massachusetts Law and Sober Houses

Massachusetts law and sober houses have been a topic of discussion for decades. A sober house is typically a single-family home located in a residential neighborhood. A sober house, recovery house, sober living house, or recovery home refer to a group living arrangement between men or women in recovery, living in a home, working individually on their recovery. Massachusetts law is unclear, and it is important that sober house operators work closely with their communities, including city zoning, planning, inspections, health departments, and other municipal bodies to build safe and healthy sober homes for our residents. The municipalities and departments may have questions about what a sober house is, and how Massachusetts law and other legal theories apply to recovery homes.


Since March 12, 1989 (the effective date of the 1988 Amendments to the Federal Fair Housing Act) sober house protections have been a matter of Federal law. Those amendments make it unlawful to discriminate against congregate living for those who are disabled, like sober living homes. Recovering alcoholics and drug addicts are within the scope of the term “disabled”. Therefore, sober homes for the disabled may not be discriminated against through zoning or otherwise. Our homes are not treatment facilities. Our homes are recovery-focused alcohol-free and drug-free living environments which provide the opportunity for recovering individuals to live as a family focused on the need to change their individual lifestyle to one free of alcohol and drug use.


Sober house residents must be treated with the same dignity and respect that would be afforded any of our own family members, neighbors, or friends. Like Federal law, according to Massachusetts General Laws c. 40A, Section 3, as interpreted by case law, persons in recovery from substance abuse may be qualified as disabled. Massachusetts state law further provides that groups of disabled individuals may live together in the same numbers allowable at the same property as if it were occupied by a single family home. In short, unrelated disabled individuals living together are to be treated the same as related individuals living as a family. The intent of Massachusetts law is to remove any barriers for sober housing opportunities for disabled individuals that may be created by ordinances, zoning laws or decisions of municipalities, such as limits on the number of unrelated people that may live together.

Pertinent Massachusetts Case Laws

M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3 applies to congregate living arrangements among the disabled. Given that the occupants of sober homes are in recovery from substance abuse, under State and Federal Law they may be considered “disabled” or “handicapped.” See Granada House, Inc. v. City of Boston, et al., Suffolk Superior Court Civil Action No. 96-6624-E.

Legal decisions in Massachusetts

Several legal decisions in Massachusetts have applied M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3 to sober recovery homes. “As a civil rights statute, [M.G.L. c. 40A, Section 3] is remedial and the court must construe it liberally. [citations omitted] In the present case, the court concludes that Massachusetts would look to federal law, including the FHA, in interpreting the phrases “disabled person” and “persons with disabilities”, and that by so doing, the MZA must be read to bar the City’s discriminatory treatment of a group home for recovering drug and alcohol users under the code.” See City of Brockton v. St. Mary Broad Street.

Chapter 40A and sober houses

Chapter 40A, Section 3 applies to “safety laws, regulations, practices, ordinances, bylaws and decisions of a city or town” that would discriminate against disabled individuals.


Under G.L. 40A, Section 3, a congregate group of unrelated disabled persons living together should be able to occupy a property in the same manner as a family. “It is elementary that the meaning of a statute must, in the first instance, be sought in the language in which the act is framed, and if that is plain, … the sole function of the courts is to enforce it according to its terms.” See Massachusetts Community College Council v. Labor Relations Comm’n, 402 Mass. 352, 354, 522 N.E.2d 416 (1988), quoting James J. Welch & Co. v. Deputy Comm’r of Capital Planning & Operations, 387 Mass. 662, 667, 443 N.E.2d 382 (1982).


This discussion is not intended to be legal advice and should not be relied upon for any purpose. If you have any specific legal questions or needs, please contact a lawyer located in your jurisdiction.


Vanderburgh Communities is proud to support our Operators, including lending our legal resources to help them control risk and navigate the complexities of the law and sober houses.

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