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L.A. panel backs new rules for boardinghouses, group homes

The proposal would crack down on unlicensed group and boarding homes in single-family neighborhoods. The action comes a week after four people were gunned down outside a Northridge home where 17 lived.

December 10, 2012|By Wesley Lowrey, Los Angeles Times
  • Scott Sauers, 24, walks with his shopping cart in front of the home where four people were killed. Officials believe the home was an illegal boardinghouse.
Scott Sauers, 24, walks with his shopping cart in front of the home where… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times…)

A key Los Angeles City Council committee unanimously backed new regulations for boardinghouses and group homes Monday, one week after four people were shot to death in an unlicensed boardinghouse in Northridge.

Known as the Community Care Facilities Ordinance, the proposal would crack down on unlicensed group and boarding homes in neighborhoods with single-family homes throughout the city. If passed by the full council, the ordinance would increase oversight of licensed group homes serving seven or more people and change the city code's definition of a "boardinghouse" to include any home with more than three renters — requiring them to obtain a license.

The measure would not affect licensed facilities serving six or fewer people, which state law prohibits the city from regulating.

The ordinance, sponsored by Councilman Mitchell Englander, aims to enable police and code enforcement officers to rid single-family neighborhoods of unlicensed boardinghouses, in which dozens of people are sometimes crammed into a few bedrooms and that in some cases become havens for crime and drugs.

Praised by more than 40 community groups and neighborhood associations, the ordinance has come under fire from anti-poverty advocates and those who oversee group homes for those recovering from drug and alcohol addiction.

"This ordinance limits options at a time when people need options," said Fernando Gaytan, of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, in his statement to the committee.

Englander and many of the speakers in favor of the ordinance cited last week's shooting of four people at what police believe to be an unlicensed boardinghouse in Northridge where as many as 17 people were living in a single-family home.

"This does come on the heels of a heinous tragedy in Devonshire," Englander said, noting that now is the time to update "out of touch" and "antiquated" sections of the city's municipal code that prevent authorities from adequately monitoring boardinghouses.

By requiring a license to be obtained by homes serving seven or more people or where residents are living under more than three leases, Englander said city officials will be able to conduct routine inspections and shut down problem houses that are unlicensed. Leaders of various homeowners associations addressed the committee, pleading for the ordinance's passage, citing overcrowded homes in their neighborhoods.

But critics of the ordinance say that it could force group homes that service the drug-addicted, disabled, parolees and the chronically homeless to shut their doors and send residents out onto the streets. They say they would be required to get a state license and that would formally define them as "boardinghouses." That would mean they could not operate in areas that are zoned for "single-family housing."

Opponents say that by forcing all homes with more than three leases to register as boardinghouses it will force group homes now operating in neighborhoods not zoned for boardinghouses to relocate or close their doors.

"If it has too many leases, it becomes a boardinghouse, regardless of whether it provides acute care," said Greg Spiegel, of the Inner City Law Center, after the ordinance was passed by the committee. "That means that 85% of residentially zoned land in L.A. is off limits to people who need to or prefer to share housing, a disproportionate number of who are people with disabilities."

"No one supports 20 or 30 people in a single-family house," said Michael Arnold, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. "L.A. is a city with a critical shortage of affordable housing. This ordinance will violate fair housing laws."

Before voting unanimously to pass the ordinance on to the full council, the committee broadened its language with respect to leases. Though a previous proposal would have required any home with more than one lease to apply for a license, Englander amended it with wording to allow up to three leases before requiring a license. He also instructed the city attorney to research the effect the ordinance could have on domestic violence shelters and provide a possible exemption for them.

"We've taken a lot from all sides of this to try to craft good public policy," Englander said. "It's not my intent, nor will this ordinance have the effect, to push out those in need."

Englander also added to the ordinance a provision that would automatically reopen public comment on the matter one year after its implementation — a provision he said was suggested by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to hear out any unintended consequences.

The council is expected to vote on the ordinance in January.

wesley.lowrey@latimes.com

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