Tempers flared in Kalispell last spring over the establishment of a recovery-based group home in a residential neighborhood near Flathead High School's athletic stadium. Freedom House—designed to offer clean and sober housing for recovering drug and alcohol addicts—ran afoul of nearby homeowners and city officials concerned about oversight of the home.
Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball says the public uproar gradually subsided after a city council hearing last fall. The city had no grounds to issue a cease and desist order, Harball adds, and "treated it as we would treat any community residential facility of eight people or less." Kalispell left Freedom House alone, hoping the Montana Legislature would pass regulations for such sober houses.
Kalispell Planning Director Tom Jentz says the facility's president stepped down not long after the controversy due to personal troubles, and its board of directors disbanded. "The sign came down off the building," Jentz adds, "and they were just another rental facility in the city of Kalispell."
But Montana Fair Housing reopened the Freedom House debate early last month when it filed a suit against the City of Kalispell in U.S. District Court. The Butte-based nonprofit, which filed similar complaints with both the state and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last year, alleges that in not issuing Freedom House a conditional use permit to operate as a group home, the city violated the Federal Fair Housing Act.
"There's no governmental oversight of how a family operates, and the accommodation we want from the city is [for Freedom House] to be treated like a family," says Steve Polin, a Washington, D.C. attorney representing MFH. "Each sober house has its own rules and regulations and a manner in which they enforce these rules and regulations. To a certain extent, it's really not anybody's business how this takes place."
MFH's legal complaint came as news to Harball. He's received no notification from federal district court in Missoula, he says. As far as he and Jentz know, Freedom House is still operating as a sober facility, just without a board of directors or a name. And the city has no problem with that. "We don't hear any problems there, the police aren't called there, there isn't graffiti on the walls," he says. "So I'm not sure where Montana Fair Housing is on it, what they wanted to do."