When Aimee Gonzales bought three sober living houses — known as Oxford Houses — in St. George, Utah, it was a dream come true.
After all, she’d lived in one when she was released from prison in 2011, and she’d managed them since 2012. When her renter’s license application was denied by the city in November 2019, her dream turned into a nightmare.
“They denied the application, saying that we’re not supposed to have more than four women to a house,” Gonzales told St. George News.
“When I bought the houses, two already had 10 women living in them. The other house had 13.”
The number of women living in each house didn’t increase since Gonzales’s purchase. In fact, the number of women in the houses has been roughly the same since the previous owners, Julie and Ivan Tippetts, were in charge of them, spanning the years 2012 to 2019.
“We ran into trouble about this, too,” Ivan Tippetts said. “But we were never denied a renter’s license.
“According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with disabilities must have reasonable accommodations. People who suffer from substance abuse disorder are covered under the act.”
St. George deputy city attorney Paula Houston declined to comment on this case, saying it’s still open. But St. George News obtained a copy of a letter denying Gonzales’s request for reasonable accommodations.
In the letter, Houston said that Gonzales failed to prove that her accommodation is “necessary to afford an equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling.”
Houston said in the letter that Gonzales failed to provide information that shows the need for 10-13 people to live in these homes, or why it’s reasonable.
The women who live there, along with some of those who care for them, see it differently. So, Gonzales filed an appeal.
Christine Carroll said she realized she had a drinking problem when she moved to St. George from Mesa, Az., in 2018. She lived in her parents’ condo for a while, but didn’t have any structure.
“I could basically do whatever I wanted, so I did,” Carroll told St. George News. “I knew I needed to do something about it, but didn’t know what. That’s when I found Oxford House online and applied to get in.”
Carroll got in.
“It saved my life,” she said.
But getting in isn’t easy. Each applicant must apply for a spot, then do an interview with residents. The residents then vote on whether or not to invite the applicant to live with them.
“It’s a democratic process,” said Ivan’s wife, Julie Tippetts. “You’ve got to want to be there. You’ve got to stay sober, contribute to the community and attend meetings to work through your addiction.”
If a resident relapses, she has 45 minutes to gather her belongings and leave.
“And she can’t return until she can provide a clean drug test,” Tippetts added.
That’s where the number of residents in each home becomes crucial. While property owners looking to maximize earnings may try to cram as many tenants as possible into each home, Oxford Houses put two women to a room as a protective measure.
“Addicts tend to isolate,” Gonzales said. “That’s when they backslide.”
Having a roommate helps prevent them from isolating, so it decreases their chances of relapsing.
“A lot of times, your roommate will know you’re at risk of relapsing before you do,” Tippetts said. “That’s why Oxford houses are so effective at getting people off drugs.”
“I’ve found friendship and support here,” Carroll said. “We’re all in the same boat. We can talk to anyone in the house. We’ve got each other’s back. It’s less of a roommate situation and more like a family.”
While family offers refuge for some, it stirs anxiety in others. Though Susan Berry said she loves her family, being around them fills her with stress.
“It’s hard for people who’ve never dealt with addiction to understand what we’re going through,” said Berry, who moved into an Oxford House after she was released from Draper Prison just two weeks ago.
“They want you to be there, but they worry you’ll use again. It makes things very tense.”
That kind of feeling can hang in the air like the smell of a good roast, but it lacks the warmth, the comfort.
“They think if they say, ‘Stop,’ you can just stop,” Berry said. “They think it’s that easy. It’s not.”
Many of the women at the house St. George News visited had a similar story of trying to deal with family members who mean well, but unintentionally make things more difficult.
“Then you start isolating, and the cycle begins again,” Berry said. “Here, I have a support system. They know what I’m going through. They’ve been there.”
As Berry told her story, Hollie Hancock listened intently, fidgeting. Then she chimed in.
“I want to use right now,” Hancock said.
Carroll reached out and put her hand on Hancock’s shoulder. Hancock seemed to gather strength from Carroll’s gesture of care, then continued.
Hancock’s husband had kicked her out, and her son hadn’t called her “Mom” for nearly eight years. She’s been a resident at the house for 10 months, during which time she’s made great strides towards getting her life back on track.
“I’m struggling with my emotions,” Hancock said. “But I’m learning to talk about it. Since being here, I’m talking with my son more often. He started calling me ‘Mom’ again.”
Hancock paused again, sobbing gently. After Carroll comforted Hancock again, Hancock continued.
“Without Aimee, and my roommate Amber, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be lost without this house.”
In one section of Paul Houston’s denial letter, Houston cites City of Edmonds v. Oxford House Inc. It says that land use ordinances may legitimately be enforced “to preserve ‘the character’ of neighborhoods, securing ‘zones where family values, youth values, and the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air …are a sanctuary for people.’”
Ivan Tippetts said that the above quote is discriminatory.
“We can’t place an arbitrary number upon how many people can live in a building based upon whether or not they’re married,” Tippetts said. “Are people in recovery not people? People who are in recovery are protected by the Federal Fair Housing Act, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
According to the Oxford House website, in the case of City of Edmonds v. Oxford House Inc., “the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that recovering alcoholics and drug addicts were a protected class under the handicapped provisions of the Federal Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988.”
Tippetts pointed out that the women in sober living homes are trying to reenter society.
“These houses are the missing link between jail, rehab and the family home,” Tippetts said. “If Aimee loses this case, these women will have nowhere to go.”
If the law sides with the city, Gonzales and the women in each of her homes may need to make the difficult decision of forcing some residents to move.
“It’s hard enough to find affordable housing in St. George,” Berry said. “Try finding a rental when you’re on parole. It’s harder to get a job, so I won’t have any income to show landlords. We don’t have a lot of options.”
Gonzales said she understands, because she was once in a situation much like Berry’s.
“I know what it’s like to be fresh out of prison,” Gonzales said. “You have nowhere to go, no options. So you think, ‘If I steal something from the gas station, I can go back. I’ll have a place to sleep, food to eat.’”
Luckily for Gonzales, she got into an Oxford House. During the following 18 months, she worked, paid her fines and graduated from Dixie State with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. And, of course, she managed the sober living homes she now owns with her husband, Jonathan.
“My hope in buying these homes was to save them,” she said. “Somehow, I’ve put them at risk. I can’t even think about what will happen if I lose this appeal. I’ve been under so much stress. It makes me physically sick.”
For Gonzales, it’s not about property or profit.
“If these women lose their home, it would be devastating,” Gonzales said. “The disease of addiction is life or death. If they go out and use one more time, it could be their last. I can’t kick them out, knowing they could die.”
Yet she tries to keep a hopeful outlook. If not for herself, for the women she’s trying to help.
“I just keep trying to do the next right thing,” she said. “If you can do that, miracles happen.”
David Dudley is a 2020 John Jay Justice Reporting Fellow. This article previously appeared in the St. George News and is reproduced with permission. To access the complete story and video, please click here.