Over the last 11 years, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore has worked hand-in-hand with the city to build a comprehensive public drug addiction treatment system. Since opening our doors in 1998, we knew that addiction treatment had to be one of our chief concerns if we were to help revitalize Baltimore and improve the health and stability of our most vulnerable families. We have invested over $10 million in the Baltimore treatment system and launched a national project to Close the Addiction Treatment Gap based on Baltimore’s successful efforts to make treatment more accessible.
Imagine our frustration and consternation at the current situation—following five years of patient discussions and public education—in which the Baltimore City Council has not yet approved a zoning change to remove illegal barriers to sitting licensed residential facilities for people recovering from drug addiction, among others. Federal law is clear that the current Baltimore zoning regulations violate the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act—so clear, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Justice has officially notified Baltimore that it will sue the city if it does not amend zoning laws that illegally allow community residents, through their City Council representatives, to veto licensed residential facilities.
City Council members have a choice to make. It is clear that the Department of Justice will win the litigation it plans to bring against the city. If they act quickly, City Council members still have time to step up, change the illegal zoning provision, and save the city from squandering valuable public resources in unnecessary litigation costs. Moreover, by removing barriers to the availability of licensed residential facilities, the City Council will directly help people in recovery to stay in recovery, thereby protecting the city’s investment in their treatment and opening up treatment slots to new Baltimore patients.
In providing this leadership, City Council members should also provide community members with clear information that the zoning change would be limited to state licensed residential programs as well as about existing procedures to address problematic non-licensed housing, which fall outside the scope of the proposed zoning regulation. Council members should also point out that helping drug-dependent people to access residential treatment and recovery facilities is key to their economic and social stability, which will help the entire city move toward economic recovery.
In a city ostensibly dedicated to treating its huge addiction problem—and the health, workforce, foster care, crime and negative reputation it engenders—the City Council’s capitulation to misinformation and discrimination is hard to understand. And, unfortunately, it makes us wonder about the City’s commitment to a public-private partnership to build a strong addiction treatment and recovery system.