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Thousand Oaks Backs Off on Group Homes Ban : Renters: The council rules that strangers can be an 'alternate family' if they share responsibility for house cleaning and have equal access to common areas.


Retreating from a law that forced government to pry into the emotional bonds between renters, the Thousand Oaks City Council has decided that unrelated adults may share a house in single-family neighborhoods.

Despite impassioned appeals from neighbors, who believe transient renters destroy their community's atmosphere, the City Council late Tuesday voted to allow a group of four adults to share a house on Lucero Street, near Cal Lutheran University.

The case allowed council members to effectively gut a hotly debated law requiring landlords to prove their tenants form a "bona fide single housekeeping unit" linked by "a bond of social, economic and psychological commitments."

The council majority decided that even strangers could be considered an "alternate family" if they share responsibility for house cleaning and enjoy equal access to common areas. To become an acceptable "housekeeping unit," renters also have to sign a single lease and agree to remain in the house for at least 30 days.

That new interpretation marks a significant retreat from the city's landmark overcrowding ordinance, which was considered a test case for the state, City Atty. Mark Sellers said. The law, which passed unanimously in March of 1992, remains in place. But the lax definition of family adopted Tuesday will give landlords leeway in renting their property.

And that relieves some city officials, who had recoiled from the idea of snooping around private homes and probing personal relationships.

"I'm not an analyst, I'm a legislator," said Councilman Frank Schillo, who voted for the original ordinance but hesitated to apply its tough standards.

Schillo owns one rental house in Thousand Oaks, plus a one-third share in four others. At times, he said, he has rented to more than four unrelated adults--and once, the resulting noise and nuisance problems forced him to evict some rowdy tenants. Nonetheless, Schillo said he felt uneasy about imposing a blanket ban on group homes.

"I kind of felt like the neighbors were asking me, as a council member, to become a Nazi, and I don't feel comfortable with that," he said after a spirited three-hour public hearing.

Mayor Judy Lazar, who also owns a rental home in the city, offered her own analysis. Although she, too, voted for the original ordinance, on Tuesday she panned the law as an underhanded attempt to create homogeneous, cookie-cutter neighborhoods throughout Thousand Oaks.

"I'm very concerned that some council members may be imposing their own values on others," she said. "I'm concerned that some of us may want to see only families with a mother, a father and children in our neighborhoods."

Lazar was clearly referring to Councilwomen Elois Zeanah and Jaime Zukowski, who support a more stringent definition of "single housekeeping unit" to keep transients out of single-family neighborhoods.

Both Zeanah and Zukowski voted against granting the Lucero Street landlord permission to rent her home to four adult males--a computer salesman, a youth counselor, a member of the National Guard and a grocery clerk.

"If we start watering down our interpretation, we're going to do an injustice to hundreds of thousands of residents who moved to our community having faith that we would uphold single-family zoning," Zeanah said.

Her fiery speech won a smattering of applause from neighbors, who presented a petition with 152 signatures opposing commercial activity--including rental homes--in residential neighborhoods.

"We didn't move there to have quasi-rooming houses in our midst," said Don Volz, representing the Shadow Oaks Homeowners' Assn.

Yet city attorney Sellers drew a distinction between rooming houses, in which each bedroom becomes an isolated mini-apartment, and group homes, in which tenants share cooking, cleaning and yard upkeep. As long as the renters do not use separate entrances or divide up the common areas, they may be considered a "single housekeeping unit," he said.

Councilman Alex Fiore embraced this new interpretation, ridiculing the notion that the city could somehow force young adults to establish close emotional ties before moving in together.

Playfully, he pretended to lecture would-be tenants: "Why don't you all go homeless for a year and live together on the streets so you can get bonded," he said. "Then come back and we can let you live in a rental house."

Zeanah, Zukowski and Fiore do not own rental homes, according to their yearly financial statements.

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