A historic structure near downtown Little Rock has been the site of a recent neighborhood controversy as nearby residents object to its use as a new home for recovering substance abusers. KUAR’s Chris Hickey has a look the home’s mission, what those neighbors are saying, and how local officials are dealing with it all.
Along south Broadway St in Little Rock, a commingling of corner stores, law firms, day-care facilities, churches, grandiose turn of the century homes and housing projects, share a strip zoned for both commercial and residential properties. It’s here that some residents have objected to the use of one historical house as a transitional living facility for recovering substance abusers
“It's a very proud neighborhood. Anyone who has met anyone who lives in the Quapaw Quarter knows that folks who live there feel a deep personal connection to their historic homes and to the neighborhood as a whole,” says Boyd Maher, director of the Capitol Zoning District Commission.
Maher says in the 70’s the area around the state Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion went through a period of disinvestment, when many of the area’s historic homes fell into a state of disrepair as unscrupulous landlords refitted single family homes as boarding houses. He says many property owners at the time wanted to preserve the historic nature of the homes.
“But they were also really concerned about attracting the right kinds of uses to the neighborhood,” he points out.
The uses those property owners lobbied for fell into the purview of Capitol Zoning, which now regularly holds meetings issuing permits for adjustments and renovations a homeowner from the area may carry out on their property. In October, a “Chem-free living” substance abuse recovery service set up operations.
“We started getting calls that...there seemed to be a lot of young adults living at this house. And so folks started calling us concerned that it had become a rooming house—a boarding house.”
Maher says the house’s owner and tenants were surprised to hear they needed to apply for a conditional use permit and upon finding out, the tenant Muskie Harris arrived that same afternoon to apply. Still, many homeowners in the area have objected to the house’s use, citing concerns about the boarders, many of whom are facing criminal proceedings. Capitol Zoning staff recommends approval under a number of conditions: no parolees or sex offenders should be housed there; city building and fire codes should be followed (among others). Board members of the Downtown Little Rock Neighborhood association and the Mansion Area Advisory Committee are both urging Capitol Zoning to deny the permits.
Jill Judy owns several properties in the Quapaw Quarter and Governor’s Mansion District along with her husband. At a nearby coffee shop, she spoke about prevailing one concern among the neighborhood’s homeowners.
“This house is probably in better shape than a lot of other houses. But it was built as a single family house. It currently has four bedrooms, two full bathrooms,” she says.
Judy questions whether the house, which was built in 1895 and recently renovated, can withstand the stress as living quarters for up to 12 adults, its maximum occupancy. Will this signal the arrival of more boarding houses to the area? She wonders.
“This is not a good use for an old house,” she says.
Muskie Harris and Lance Lamb are co-directors of the Muskie Harris Recovery Service. Harris is a court liaison and has been involved in rehabilitative services for 17 years. Before that he was a Razorbacks football player, and ran for several public offices, including Lieutenant Governor in 1990. It took a prison sentence in the mid-90’s to correct his drug habit, he says. Eventually he turned his attention to helping others who suffer from addiction. He describes the “chem-free” services his non-profit provides.
“When an individual is in the Chem-free environment, they have already completed their in-patient treatment. And treatment only lasts from 30 to 180 days. And 80 percent of my clients are on court orders, so they must stay under the court order compliance to have structured living until they have a judgment or disposition on their case,” Harris says.
The house only serves adult males, who must pay 700 dollars a month to stay there. All the current residents got jobs shortly after they moved in and are fairly self-reliant, Lamb and Harris say. Harris’s program has also drawn support from the area. Marie Maynard O'Connell, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in downtown Little Rock. She says Harris’ program provides a much needed wedge between society and the criminal justice system, addressing a problem affecting people of all stripes.
“And that's something that society needs to de-stigmatize,” says O'Connell. “I think programs like this—that because they cost and because it's going to require family and social support for these individuals to go through the treatment program—I think it starts to address the normalizing of treatment.”
Lance Lamb, who is a former client of Harris and who has spent the last ten years living a sober life, says keeping a homely environment for clients is key.
"Once they get here, [staying clean] is the easiest issue they have...We concentrate on the other issues that they didn't learn as they grew up. And that is: balancing a checkbook. You know, the little bitty things that most of us do everyday and don't think anything about it,” he says.
House rules are strict, Lamb says, and breaking them is grounds for removal and the possibility of jail time. Sitting outside a local cafe (Sounds of Cafe), one neighbor Tom Gundren, who has spent his career in social work, agrees with the house’s mission but he says it raises other issues. He thinks there’s a lack of specific regulatory infrastructure for services like these, since the clients of “Chem-free Living” go there as an alternative to being convicted and incarcerated.
“I think we really need to have our legislative delegation looking at this and looking at some of the other things happening to come up with some regulation that covers these areas that are not now covered; and this is one,” he says.
The Capitol Zoning District Commission has sought a legal opinion on whether the recovering addicts are considered disabled and a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act, which would help solidify the house’s current use. The commission will vote on approval or denial of a conditional use permit in a meeting scheduled for January 16th.
1/17/14 Update: Due to the commission's inability to reach a quorum on Thursday evening, the meeting has been rescheduled for the following Thursday, January 23rd.