Scott Sauers, 24, and his girlfriend, Adelina Cantarine, 18, in front of… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
From the street, the tidy two-story ranch house didn't stand out in the suburban Northridge tract.
But when police responded to the shooting deaths of four people there Sunday, officers were shocked at what they found inside.
The home was littered with old food and trash. Mattresses and portable stoves were scattered about, and officials believe that as many as 17 people were living inside. It had so much debris and so many partitions that one room could be accessed only through a window. A trail of extension cords led investigators to the backyard, where several makeshift living quarters had been assembled.
PHOTOS: Four killed in shooting at Northridge home
"It was deplorable conditions," said Los Angeles Councilman Mitchell Englander, who toured the home. "Very filthy, unsanitary."
As detectives continue to search for the suspect, neighborhood leaders say the case adds new urgency to the long-running debate in L.A. over how and whether to crack down on illegal boardinghouses.
The City Council has weighed new regulations for several years but has yet to pass anything despite the urgings of dozens of neighborhood councils as well as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. City officials say illegal boardinghouses have proliferated in recent years, with some homeowners taking on multiple tenants to make ends meet.
L.A. zoning code prohibits boardinghouses — defined as dwellings with up to five rented rooms — in both single-family and low-density residential zones, said Jane Usher, special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.
Officials cite several recent incidents at illegal boardinghouses, including a fatal fire last month at a Pasadena home where 19 people were living. Two people died in the fire, which authorities said was started by a tenant.
Englander said he's come across a home with 40 residents.
The home where the shootings occurred had all the markings of an illegal boardinghouse, officials said. The building had been segmented into numerous small spaces with several entrances. The indoor staircase was blocked off, and an outdoor staircase had been built to create another entrance, Englander said.
Yag Kapil, who said he has owned the property since 1968, told The Times Monday that he rents rooms out but denies he was running a boarding home. "It's just a house," he said.
Kapil, 78, who lives at the home, said he is bedridden and was sleeping at the time of the shootings. He said he didn't hear anything and didn't know the victims.
Authorities have not released the identities of the two men and two women killed, and police were still searching for a motive and a weapon.
Three of the victims — a man and two women — were shot on the walkway on the left side of the home, a source familiar with the case told The Times on Monday. They were all wearing hooded sweat shirts and were about two feet apart from each other. All three had at least one bullet wound to their heads.
One victim was crumpled on her knees, the source said, her face buried in the palms of her hands, "almost like she was praying." The other two victims on the walkway were face down.
The fourth victim — a man — was farther away and appeared as if he was trying to run to the backyard when the shootings broke out. He had at least one gunshot wound, according to the source.
"It looked like a quick kill," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Englander said the wording of the city's boardinghouse law is antiquated and unclear, making it hard for city inspectors and prosecutors to pursue cases.
He supports legislation that would require homes with multiple leases to obtain a license, either through the state or the city's planning department. That, he said, would allow inspectors to make routine checks and better ensure suitable living conditions.
The City Council has already spent nearly two years debating a proposal that city lawyers say would make it easier to enforce its ban on boardinghouses in low-density neighborhoods. That proposal would have redefined the term boardinghouse to mean any place that has separate guest rooms with two or more leases.
That idea won support from community groups, which have also complained about problems at group homes and sober-living facilities in residential neighborhoods.
But it is strongly opposed by anti-poverty advocates and groups that serve people struggling to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. They attended packed public hearings to complain that families struggling through the economic downturn would be forced out on the street if the measure passed. They also argued that cracking down on such facilities could violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and fair housing laws.