The former operator of a sober house in Biddeford has filed a federal discriminatory housing complaint against the city, saying it was forced to leave a downtown apartment that it used as a temporary home for men fighting substance abuse.

Jesse Harvey of Journey House LLC operated a sober house last year in an apartment at 45 Hill St. that could accommodate six men. Harvey’s complaint claims the city violated the federal fair housing law when a code enforcement officer told Harvey’s landlord that the sober house was an illegal operation because the building did not have a sprinkler system.

Sprinkler systems are not required for older traditional apartment buildings, but the city had raised the possibility that the unit containing the sober house could qualify as a rooming house and be subject to additional safety standards.

The sober house was open for a year in Biddeford before closing last December. Journey House Sober Living now operates in Sanford.

Meanwhile, the seven-unit apartment building on Hill Street that is the subject of the dispute was destroyed April 2 in a fire that killed one elderly resident. The State Fire Marshal’s Office has said it may never determine a cause of the fire because of the extensive damage it caused.

The federal housing discrimination complaint was filed March 27 and is unrelated to the fire that took place a week later. In the complaint, Harvey said the city and Code Enforcement Officer Roby Fecteau used zoning and land use ordinances to discriminate against residents of the sober house. The complaint claims the city told landlord Richard Langevin in October 2017 that the sober house was an “illegal operation” because the building did not have sprinklers.

The city denies ever telling Harvey or Langevin that the sober house was an illegal operation or that they needed to vacate the apartment, according to an answer to the complaint from city attorney Keith Jacques.

The city became aware of the sober house after two of its residents sought General Assistance from the city. As part of that process, the landlord completed a “Landlord Verification of Rental Unit” that required a building inspection if one had not been completed in the past year, Jacques said.

The city’s General Assistance administrator requested an inspection because the apartment had not been inspected for “quite some time” and its condition was unknown, Jacques said. The city says the complainants refused to provide access to the apartment unit despite reassurances that the inspection was only to determine if the apartment unit was safe, according to the city’s response to the complaint.

“While city representatives initially expressed concerns that the operation might need to be classified as a rooming house within a multi-unit apartment building thereby potentially requiring a sprinkler system within the units, Complainant continued to operate the sober house within the apartment building while the city sought clarification from the State of Maine Fire Marshal’s Office,” Jacques wrote in the response to the complaint.

The city was still waiting on more information about the state requirements from the fire marshal’s office when the sober house closed.

An investigation into the complaint will be done by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The department will issue a charge if the investigation indicates reasonable cause that an unlawful discriminatory housing practice occurred. If no reasonable cause is found, the complaint will be dismissed, according to a letter from the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity notifying the city of the complaint.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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