Alexandria's Seminary Hill neighborhood is sprinkled with group homes for people with special needs. Within roughly a six-block radius, there is a juvenile crisis shelter, a home for emotionally disturbed adolescent girls, two homes for mentally retarded adults and an assisted living facility for senior citizens.
So residents were surprised to discover recently that a stately manor house in the neighborhood also is a group home for recovering substance abusers. Beyond concerns about their children's safety and declining property values, residents were angry that they were never told about the sixth group home.
"The community was not informed," said Mickey Moore, a 20-year resident of Seminary Hill. "It's like this thing just came under the cover of darkness."
But city officials couldn't have informed neighbors because until recently they, too, were unaware of the Gonzalez Recovery Residence, which was established on North Pickett Street in February. Under a 1990 state law, group homes of eight or fewer residents must be treated the same as "residential occupancy by a single family." Owner Boris Gonzalez had to secure a provisional state license and two city permits, but he was not required to notify neighbors or government officials.
Neighbors learned of the house only after noticing a multitude of cars in the driveway and a number of adults coming and going. They asked City Council members, who in turn queried Bill Claiborne, executive director of the city's Community Services Board. Claiborne then contacted Virginia's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.
Gonzalez, who lives at the house, said he did not tell neighbors about the house or its residents out of respect for the privacy of those residents, all of whom have recently completed intensive work at a detox center and are continuing to work on their recoveries.
"I have upstanding citizens who want a lot of privacy," Gonzalez said. "I don't want to chill their effort."
Three neighbors said they were misled by Gonzalez. Moore, who lives about a block from the property, said she queried Gonzalez in a lighthearted way after he bought the six-bedroom property in January.
"I said, 'That's a big home. How many wives and how many children?' " she recalled. "He responded, 'No wives, no children,' " she said, and that was the end of the conversation. Another neighbor, Richard Dressner, who lives two doors away, introduced himself to Gonzalez shortly after he bought the house. There had been rumors of development, so Dressner was direct.
"I said, 'Mr. Gonzalez, what are you going to do with the house?' " Dressner recalled. "And he said, 'I'm going to live here with my family. And I'm going to conduct my business here.' And I said, 'What is your business?' And he said, 'I'm an accountant.' "
A third neighbor, Mac Olson, whose back yard abuts the Gonzalez house's back yard, more recently asked Gonzalez about all the people he saw on the property. According to Olson, Gonzalez told him he had some roommates.
Gonzalez said the neighbors' memories were accurate, with one exception: He is a lawyer, not an accountant, he said. In his mind, Gonzalez said, he gave truthful answers. He has no wife or children, he considers the roommates his family, and he is conducting his business out of the house.
"I see where they're coming from, but I didn't mean to mislead them," Gonzalez said.
Claiborne said that while there is no law requiring disclosure of group homes, he believes it is good practice to do so.
A spokeswoman for the state's Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services said that the department encourages new licensees to post a notice of their program and that the department itself used to run ads about new programs in local papers, but found the cost prohibitive.
Resident Jack Sullivan said the "stealth" arrival of the home "just sets things wrong." Sullivan added that he has not and would not oppose the placement of such homes but that a concentration of them in one neighborhood contradicts the purpose of the homes, which is to coexist in a largely residential neighborhood.
"If you site three of them in a row or multiples in an area, doesn't it change the character of a neighborhood?" Sullivan asked.
The issue of having a cluster of group homes in one neighborhood is one that the city has grappled with before. Last year, Claiborne's office compiled a map of the city's 23 group homes, 10 of which are city-run facilities. The purpose of the map was to place any future city-run group homes in neighborhoods that currently have none, such as Old Town and the portion of Alexandria west of Interstate 395.
Of eight areas depicted in the map, Del Ray has the heaviest concentration of group homes, with a ratio of 2.27 homes for every 1,000 single-family houses. The larger area encompassing Seminary Hill has a ratio of 0.35, but much of that concentration is in a small area.
"The neighborhood has some just concerns, because there are so many," said City Council member Redella "Del" Pepper (D).
The issue is on the agenda for tonight's meeting of the Seminary Hill Association, but if the association chooses to fight the house, it will be up against both the 1990 state law and the federal Fair Housing Act, according to city attorney Phil Sunderland. Sunderland said the city's old zoning code required 1,000 feet between group homes in residential areas prior to 1992. The code was changed because it was believed to be illegal under the Fair Housing Act.
The recovery residence now houses seven people, according to Gonzalez, but has capacity under a provisional state license for eight. A counselor is on call around the clock, and a resident who is not sober can be asked to leave immediately. The average length of stay is four to six months, and the "upper middle-income" residents must pay $2,750 monthly in rent.