Editor’s note: The story has been updated to include a response below from Mayor Joyce Craig’s office.
MANCHESTER, NH – Into Action Sober Living at 273 Dubuque St. is a place for young men to maintain their sobriety through a 12-step recovery program. There are 18 to 21 people living in the triple-decker style apartment building, which has a combined 5,052 square feet of living space.
And they may be forced to close if they can’t find a way to make significant upgrades to the building. Recently, co-owners Andrew Pomerantz, 27, and Jonathan Gerson, 33, were told — after an impromptu building inspection — that they would need to install a new sprinkler system, alarm system and put in new walls and doors to be in compliance with fire safety codes.
Pomerantz said the organization is not profit driven, does not take insurance and only gets its revenue from rents. They estimate the cost of the sprinkler system alone to be about $75,000, which is not something they can afford.
“If it’s a matter of automatic sprinklers and that’s it, then we’re gonna close,” Gerson said.
Gerson said they have cooperated with the Manchester Fire Department at every step, but he said the process has been confusing, opaque and fraught with uncertainty.
In a letter dated June 18, the state fire marshal denied Into Action a requested variance due to “a lack of substantially equivalent forms of protection being provided.”
Manchester Fire Marshal Pete Lennon said this is the first such letter to get denied. There are two more variance letters being processed and a third one about to be submitted, he said.
“We have others throughout the city that are in the same type of situation,” Lennon said.
Lennon said he is aware of about a dozen sober living homes in the city that the department is working with over safety code compliance issues. He thinks there are likely several more he’s unaware of.
Lennon said he plans on meeting with Into Action next week to discuss the timetable moving forward.
Pomerantz said there’s supposed to be an appeals process, but he isn’t sure how that works or what the time period is for submitting an appeal.
Lennon said the organization has two choices: make the required upgrades or reduce the residency to three unrelated adults per floor.
If they don’t do either, the department will have to take enforcement action against them.
Pomerantz said he is still hopeful they can arrive at a compromise, but he said the stakes are too high for him not to fight back with legal action if the city tries to shut them down.
“If we were to shut down, it would be 18 addicts and alcoholics with nowhere to go,” Pomerantz said. “If four or five sober houses in Manchester close, the impact is going to be astronomical.”
Each floor of the building has three bedrooms (each with two beds), a kitchen, living room and bathroom. On the second floor is a large, unfurnished room that serves as the communal meditation room, where the men sit on the carpeted floor together and meditate in the mornings. On Sundays, they share a communal dinner.
“We’re like a family unit,” Pomerantz said.
He and Gerson are both in recovery themselves and graduated from similar sober homes in New Hampshire. They are both originally from towns in the North Shore of Massachusetts.
Pomerantz took over the sober home in November 2017 after it was converted by a previous sober living organization in 2016. Gerson originally joined as a house manager and then later became a partner.
The property has been owned by Paul Foden since November 2016, according to city records.
There are two to three hardwired smoke detectors and a fire extinguisher on each floor, Gerson said. The living areas are clean and spacious. Outside, there’s a communal garden growing seven different kinds of vegetables, like zucchini and spinach. And Gerson said their neighbor told them they’re the best neighbors he’s ever had.
“I’m really proud of what we do here,” Gerson said.
Meanwhile, Gerson has observed neighbors with 20 people partying on a single floor, drinking and smoking.
There’s no drugs or alcohol allowed in the sober home, no smoking allowed on the porches and a long list of safety rules the residents have to abide by.
The occupancy rules in the fire safety code differ between use by a family unit in an apartment or a group of unrelated adults. Gerson also feels they and other sober living homes are being unfairly singled out by the fire department.
When they allowed the fire department to look around inside, Gerson didn’t think twice about it. Now, he feels like it was a mistake to let them in. Other sober living home operators told him as much.
Salem Fire Chief Paul Parisi, who will take over as the state fire marshal in August, is aware of the issue facing sober living homes. He expects it will be an issue he’ll continue to deal with in his new job.
“This is definitely an issue that will continue to rear its head,” Parisi said.
During a recent meeting with Rep. Annie Kuster (D), Parisi asked her if there were any federal grant programs that would help these sober homes afford the required upgrades.
Kuster said she would look into it. But such a program might come too late for Into Action.
“What happens to us in the meantime?” Gerson said.
Gerson and Pomerantz said they reached out to the mayor’s office for help, but haven’t received a response yet.
“It feels like no-one cares,” Pomerantz said.
Story update, July 7, 2018 9 a.m.:
Lauren Smith, Policy and Strategic Outreach Director for the mayor, provided the following information in response to the story:
“Mr. Gerson and Pomerantz have been in contact with our office multiple times (I spoke to them as recently as Friday) and we’re working on a time to schedule a meeting with them. I relayed this information to them Friday, but mentioned that because of the holiday week, coordinating was a little behind.”