After years of struggle, Dallas may be on its way to regulating the city's boarding home facilities. Finally. City Council members are set to vote Wednesday on a new ordinance that would require licenses and annual inspections for boarding homes, as well rules aimed at keeping the homes "safe, sanitary and decent."
As we outlined in a cover story earlier this year, boarding home regulation has been a years-long issue for City Hall. Earlier this year, city staff told the council's Housing Committee that regulating the homes -- there are around 300 in the city, which mainly house mentally ill and disabled individuals -- would cost more than $1 million a year and require a staff of 18 full-time employees.
Since then, the price has dropped significantly. Last week, the Housing Committee heard an updated version of that briefing. It estimates that boarding home regulation will cost $598,742 a year. Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata tells us that there will now be around eight full-time staff members (the briefing itself doesn't get specific about the number of staff). Licenses that were originally supposed to cost boarding home operators nearly $700 to obtain will cost $500. The city now estimates that the program will bring in $150,000 a year in revenue.
The new ordinance is based on H.B. 216, the 2009 state law giving Texas cities the power to regulate boarding home facilities. Until now, only El Paso has chosen to actually use the law. The proposed language (agenda item #10 in the massive PDF at the link), lays out standards for boarding home operators, as well as the rights of residents. Some rules are fairly general: physical and sexual abuse and exploitation are banned, including financial exploitation. Others are more exact: every room in the house has to have a door with a working lock and at least one window. Each bedroom has to have at least 70 square feet of floor space per occupant. Residents have to be provided with clean sheets, toilet paper and towels. There has to be at least one working telephone in the house. (Although many boarding homes follow these basic standards already, the dire conditions found in some homes by the city's Crisis Intervention Department make it clear that it's necessary to lay them out.)
Boarding home staff will also be required to undergo training, including how to recognize and report abuse, about the rights of residents and about the protocols for contacting emergency personnel when a resident is placing himself or others in danger. They will also be required to report injuries, incidents and "unusual accidents," including deaths, fires and missing residents.
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A few facilities won't fall under the new rules, including hotels, retirement communities, monasteries and convents, nursing and convalescent homes (which are already licensed and overseen by the state), and facilities that depend "exclusively on prayer or spiritual means for healing." According to the city, that means they won't be able to regulate about 100 of the 327 group home facilities they know to be operating currently.
"Let's keep our fingers crossed," says Janie Metzinger, public policy director at Mental Health America of Greater Dallas. She's pushed the city and state for years to create better boarding home regulations. "I don't want to jinx it. I'm still cautiously optimistic. This is just a first step. There's a lot more work. Even if we get the perfect ordinance, there's still a lot of work to do henceforth to really make this work." She cautions that nothing in the proposed ordinance is final just yet.
Metzinger says that throughout Texas, there's still a need for greater funding for inpatient mental health and drug and alcohol treatment. Currently, people might spend 30 days or less in an in-patient facility before ending up in a boarding home. That's often not enough time for them to start their recovery, and they end up caught in an endless cycle, bouncing from boarding homes to hospitals to the streets and back again.
"I would say optimally we want people to not have their lives disrupted. We want people to be able to recover in their own homes. So a stop in a boarding home isn't the option for everybody," Metzinger says. "Lord have mercy, think how many we'd have to have." But for people who do end up in homes, she says, they need to be a clean, safe, and for the most part, not a permanent solution. "We do want boarding homes to be a transition, rather than a dead end."