- Associated Press - Saturday, April 23, 2016

BRISTOL, Pa. (AP) - Charlie Mastriana stood behind the screen door of his home in the Goldenridge section of Bristol Township on a recent Saturday afternoon, motioning to one of the neighborhood’s recovery houses.

The recovering drug and alcohol addicts who live there haven’t caused him any problems, he said.

“Only once I heard some guy mouthing off,” Mastriana said, “but then later, he came around and apologized.”

His main gripe about the houses isn’t his safety. It’s economics.

“I guess they deserve some protection because they’re recovering, but Bristol Township has enough of them (recovery homes),” Mastriana said. “I know that everyone needs a chance, but we need a chance as far as our property values go.”

Longtime Goldenridge resident Rosemary Tarity hasn’t had any problems either with the recovery house that opened about six years ago a few doors down the street from her home. But she does believe the houses should be farther apart. “There shouldn’t be so many in one neighborhood,” she said.

Property values, along with public safety, over-saturation and overall quality of life are among the main concerns of some residents of Bristol Township, which has the highest concentration of these houses in Bucks County.

The number of recovery houses has quadrupled there since 2005. Today, at least 93 recovery homes are known to be operating within the 16 square miles that make up the township, which has about 22,000 residences. More than half of the recovery houses are within adjacent sections of Levittown bounded by the Levittown Parkway, Route 13, New Falls Road and Route 413.

Why are there so many and why are they so concentrated? The Great Recession, which ran roughly from late 2007 through mid-2009, and the escalating heroin epidemic are two reasons officials and others cite.

The recession brought layoffs. And that, coupled with high school taxes, led to home foreclosures, said Tom McDermott, administrator for the Bristol Township Office of Community Development.

“We had a really high vacancy rate. We had more foreclosures than anyone,” McDermott said. “So, who bought some of them up?”

Absentee landlords, said state Rep. Tina Davis, D-141, Bristol Township — and they purchased many of these vacant homes to turn into recovery houses.

She has been vocal locally and in the state Legislature about the need to regulate these businesses, which are drawing concerned residents to municipal meetings in Falls and Middletown as well as Bristol Township.

Fear or fact

But are residents’ worries accurate? Is the presence of recovery houses driving up crime and driving down home values?

A 10-year analysis of housing sales that Keller Williams realtor Michael Cosdon performed for this news organization in 11 neighborhoods in Bristol Township, Falls and Middletown neighborhoods with and without recovery houses, found the average sale prices peaked between 2006 and 2007 — just before the mortgage crisis exploded — then bottomed out between 2011 and 2014. They now appear to be on the rise.

Local police say their records don’t reflect any unusual increases in criminal activity in areas where recovery houses are located. In some cases, police and fire officials said they didn’t know the houses existed until they responded to a problem there.

A 2012 study in the journal “Addiction Research and Theory” on the impacts of recovery houses found that neighbors’ concerns are based more on fear than facts and suggested that well-run recovery houses blend seamlessly into their neighborhoods.

In fact, some fit in so well that neighbors don’t even know they’re there, said Fred Way, founder and executive director of the Pennsylvania Alliance of Recovery Residences. The trade group certifies houses that meet the standards of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences.

On a Saturday afternoon in March, some residents of the Goldenridge section of Bristol Township — where at least eight recovery homes are located — expressed mixed feelings toward recovery houses.

Lori Pinar said she knows they’re a hot-button issue locally, but she said the men who live in the house across the street from her home are considerate and thoughtful. After a snowstorm earlier this year, they shoveled her driveway and cleared ice from her cars. “They didn’t even have gloves,” she said.

Pinar said she sympathizes with the men’s struggles and often takes leftovers to the house.

“It’s got to be a rough road; they are trying, struggling to keep up,” Pinar said. “I know it’s a touchy subject and nobody wants to see property values go down, but it’s a community, and a community is made up of all types of people.”

Neighbor Dominic Ferrigno agrees that people in recovery need help and a safe place to live. And while he has only lived in Goldenridge for six months, he said the residents of the nearby recovery houses haven’t caused any problems he’s noticed.

“They have to go somewhere, and someone has to help them,” he added. “No one’s going to get clean themselves.”

Worse things

In the nearby Indian Creek section of Bristol Township, John Bartholomai said he doesn’t let his 10-year-old daughter run around the neighborhood like he once did — and his friends feel the same about their kids. But that’s because of general safety concerns — and not because his Levittown section has at least nine recovery houses.

“Definitely, times have changed,” he said.

“It freaks me out a little bit (to have the houses nearby),” his wife, Tina Bartholomai, admitted. “But we’re not parents that would let our kid just roam free. You can’t be, today, in this world.”

Bartholomai’s chief complaint with the recovery house residents who live across the street is that their additional cars makes parking tough. But he said the men who live there are always respectful to him and his family.

The lifelong Indian Creek resident added that the recovery house owner improved the property by making repairs and adding a new concrete driveway and stone patio.

“What once was an eyesore is pretty nice right now,” Bartholomai said.

John Bartholomia of Bristol Township talks about a nearby recovery house

Neighbors’ attitudes can have a profound influence on the success or failure of recovery houses, according to the 2012 study in the journal “Addiction Research and Theory” that looked at recovery houses in a Northern California neighborhood. California has one of the largest concentrations of recovery houses in the United States.

The study found the number of recovery houses in a neighborhood — and the number of residents in them — appear to influence neighbors’ perceptions of them.

Houses with six or fewer residents appeared to blend into the neighborhood, as well as houses that were spread out. Recovery houses with more residents and those grouped closer together needed to “actively manage” relationships with the community, which perceived them more negatively, the study found.

It also determined that neighbors believed well-managed recovery houses had a positive impact on their neighborhood, while poorly run homes were seen as a threat to all recovery houses. Finally, the study found neighbors’ concerns were largely based on fears, rather than information about the programs.

Way, the head of the Pennsylvania recovery house group, agreed that houses with owners who don’t take care of them or their residents tend to overshadow the good ones. Education helps though, he said.

“All (communities) hear is the negative,” he said. “They never hear the ‘Hey, this is what this house can bring here.’ “

The Northern California study didn’t examine the impact of sober living or recovery houses on property values, but Cosdon, the realtor, said anything perceived as undesirable in a residential neighborhood reduces the pool of potential buyers, which lowers property values.

“When everything came down to it, having the group home could hurt value,” Cosdon added. “It’s difficult to qualify how much, or if it would, but it’s definitely not a good thing, unfortunately.”

David Phillips, CEO of the Pennsylvania Association of Realtors, said a single element — whether it’s a nuclear power plant, a cellphone tower or a recovery house — doesn’t automatically hurt property values in every neighborhood.

“It’s really … community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, rather than an overarching policy. To draw a general conclusion that this one thing negatively affects property values is inappropriate,” he said. “It’s really a puzzle you put together. This is just one piece of that puzzle.”

As for recovery houses, Phillips said: “I can think of a lot worse things to have next door.”

Tough sell

In the Junewood section of Bristol Township — where at least three recovery houses are located — Phillips’ view can be a tough sell.

A fire raced through the attic of a recovery house there on Mother’s Day 2015, and nearly a year later, scraps of insulation and debris still are strewn across the property. A green Dumpster sits in the driveway. County property records list the homeowner as a holding company with a Langhorne address.

“It’s an eyesore,” next-door neighbor Francis Mintah said.

Kathleen Bowman, who lives on the other side of the vacant house, remembered how a recovery house resident pounded on her door, yelling for her to get out, on the night of the fire.

In March, she noticed work crews starting to haul away debris, but she didn’t know if the property would become a recovery house again. If it’s not, Bowman added, “it would not make me unhappy.”

Mintah said the recovery home was an eyesore long before the fire. Cigarette butts regularly littered the overgrown lawn. Residents gathered on the front porch, smoking and “making a lot of noise” — to the point that Mintah wouldn’t let his son walk to school past the home.

“They (recovery residents) don’t own the property, so they don’t care,” he said. “I believe people deserve to recover, but they should keep the place clean.”

Over the years, some residents maintained the property and kept to themselves, but others “not so much,” Bowman said.

“There have been times where there have been fights. There have been the police there many times,” she added. “I am very supportive of anyone trying to put their lives back together, but on the other hand, when it infringes on your safety or your security, then it’s an issue.”

Goldenridge resident Janis Gallagher would like to see all recovery homes move out of her neighborhood. She suggested the facilities could be moved into vacant retail space. In the meantime, she said she plans to move.

“I want them out of Bristol Township. Period,” Gallagher said. “They don’t need to be in the prison, but they don’t need to be here. I’m not sure the homes do any good.”

Recovery homes need to be good neighbors, according to the Pennsylvania and national alliances of recovery residences.

NARR documents state that all houses must be consistently maintained, blend in with the surrounding neighborhood and be responsive to neighbors’ complaints. They also must have courtesy rules in place for issues such as smoking, bad language, noise and parking, among other rules. Homes that are members of the Bucks County Recovery House Association, which just joined PARR and NARR, also must obey those rules.

Leadership matters

Bristol Township acting police Lt. Ralph Johnson said he understands the misconceptions people can have about recovery house residents. As the number of recovery houses there began to grow several years ago, he admitted he expected to see an increase in crime. And when the township was getting hammered with serial burglaries in 2012, he said he was convinced recovery house residents were involved.

When police eventually arrested two dozen people for the crime spree, Johnson wanted to know how many of them were recovery house residents. The answer: None.

“I was pleasantly surprised by that,” he said.

When Johnson took a deeper look at police calls involving recovery houses, he found more surprises. One-third of the township’s recovery houses had no calls to police between Jan. 1 and Dec. 9, 2015.

On average, recovery houses had the same number of calls for service as the nearly 20,000 other township residences, Johnson told residents during a special meeting about recovery houses.

“The data doesn’t support a huge crime problem coming from the recovery homes,” he said. “I’m just telling you what it says.”

The number of police calls actually dropped at some addresses — particularly vacant houses — after they opened as recovery houses, Johnson said in a recent interview.

Police in other communities also report they aren’t spending a lot of time at recovery houses.

Between January 2011 and November 2015, Middletown police responded to 26 calls at the half-dozen recovery houses within the 19-square-mile township, according to police Chief Joseph Bartorilla. Those calls included domestic disturbances, drug overdoses, noise complaints, suspicious persons and well-being checks, he said. And, the chief added, one house in the 600 block of Durham Road accounted for 20 of those calls.

Until a fire seriously damaged a six-bedroom recovery house housing 14 men on Frosty Hollow Road in June 2013, Middletown Fire Marshal James McGuire said he didn’t know it existed. Township records listed it as a business, which was what it was previously, he said.

Since the fire, the owner has invited fire officials to conduct an annual inspection, which isn’t required for recovery houses because they’re treated like any other single-family residence, McGuire said.

Bristol police Sgt. Joe Moors had a similar experience when he responded to a house in the 200 block of New Brook Street in September. There, police found a 36-year-old man hiding after he allegedly stabbed his girlfriend. Before the incident, Moors said he didn’t know it was a recovery house — and he learned during the subsequent investigation that the man had been kicked out prior to the stabbing.

The small riverfront borough was home to about a dozen recovery homes as of last summer, Moors said, and most complaints about them involved noise or reports of suspicious persons. Moors said he’s aware of only one overdose — a fatality — last year at a recovery house there.

The most frequent police encounters occur when residents are kicked out of the homes late at night due to a drug relapse and neighbors call police for a “suspicious person,” Moors said. When police investigate, they often find the person is from out-of-town and doesn’t know where to go.

“I think strong leadership is the key to a well-run house,” Moors said. “If you have a good house leader that enforces the rules and the other members respect him, you are going to limit your problems. When a house is loosely run, that is where the problems arise.”

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Online:

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Information from: Bucks County Courier Times, https://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com

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