In this week's cover story, we wrote about Dallas' boarding houses, which are home to thousands of the city's mentally ill, elderly, and disabled, as well as people recovering from alcohol and drug abuse. The homes aren't regulated by any state agency, and despite a law passed some three years ago that gives cities the power to regulate boarding homes and demand strict standards for them -- House Bill 216, written by San Antonio Democrat José Menéndez -- Dallas isn't using it. Neither is any other Texas city except El Paso, which adopted a boarding home ordinance about four months ago. Dallas mental health advocates and boarding home operators expressed frustration to us that the homes still aren't being held to strict standards of cleanliness and safety.
"The problem we see with some boarding homes is that they mitigate against recovery," Janie Metzinger told us. She's public policy director of Mental Health America of Greater Dallas.
Given that El Paso is the lone Texas city actually using the boarding home regulation, we called down there to see how it's going. We spoke with Victor Morrison, who's the deputy director of engineering and construction management. He put together the city team that oversees boarding homes.
"Hey, we're first in something!" he cried, when we informed him that El Paso is the only city that's implemented a boarding home law. "Put that in the paper, OK?"
Morrison told us the registration process for boarding homes is simple: Homes register with the city and pay a fee of $425, then a renewal fee of $125 per year. Boarding homes that were already operating when the law was passed had several months to register and get up to code. During the application process, they have to show the layout of the home, how many people they're planning on housing and the services that will be provided. Inspectors go into the home and perform building, health and fire inspections before anyone can move in. The police department also runs background checks (In Dallas, code compliance and the fire department also inspect the boarding homes they know are operating, but unlike El Paso, they don't have this type of preliminary process, and the police department doesn't run background checks at all.)
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But Morrison is also careful to point out that offering a way for boarding homes to register doesn't mean everyone will choose to follow the rules. "That doesn't mean it's still not happening," Morrison says. "There are always people who are going to operate under the law." But he says that despite some initial concerns about how the new law would work, most boarding home operators he's talked to seem content, and he hasn't seen any problems arise.
But what works for El Paso may not necessarily work for Dallas. After all, El Paso has far fewer homes than Dallas does -- so far, only about 25 have registered, while the best estimate is that Dallas has at least 300. Given that El Paso has so few boarding homes, we asked, why did the city choose to pass a law at all?
Morrison said the real impetus behind the law was that City Council members had started to get a few complaints from people living in neighborhoods with boarding homes. "We'd get somebody wandering around the neighborhood half-clothed who didn't know where they lived," Morrison says. "From time to time we'd get a complaint such as that. People started thinking, 'Are these guys allowed to roam around free?' Given that, council decided it would be proactive. Why don't we build something we can say works for us and not have those types of concerns keep coming up?"