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Proposed L.A. group homes law needs work

L.A. Councilman Mitchell Englander wants to crack down on overcrowded homes that are nuisances to neighbors. But his proposed ordinance could also shut down homes where veterans and the disabled get care.

June 12, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander's proposal would crack down on poorly run group homes, but critics say good programs would be outlawed along with the bad ones.
L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander's proposal would crack… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

It goes without saying that nobody in a residential neighborhood wants a neighbor who turns a house into a shady boarding house operation, with residents coming and going at all hours and creating a nuisance for everyone on the block.

But does a crackdown proposed by L.A. City Councilman Mitchell Englander go too far?

It depends on whom you talk to. Supporters say there shouldn't be any group homes in residential neighborhoods, period. Opponents say the proposed Community Care Facilities Ordinance could be disastrous for veterans, those with disabilities and other folks as well.

Let me start with Englander's cheerleaders.

"It was hell for two years in this neighborhood," a man from Granada Hills told me. He was talking about a nightmare that began when a squatter moved into a foreclosed 5,000-square-foot house across the street from his home of 28 years. The squatter then started renting out rooms, taking in college students at first, followed by others — as many as a few dozen at a time.

"We had convicts in there, drug people, all kinds of stuff," said the man, who asked me not to use his name for fear of retaliation. People used drugs in the streets, urinated on neighbors' properties and even fired weapons. It took months of complaints to the police and City Hall before the house was shut down in late 2010, but another such abomination in the same neighborhood was just shut down this week, according to Englander's staff.

Englander's proposal, first introduced several years ago by his predecessor, Greig Smith, would crack down on countless such shabby operations. Some of those so-called sober-living and other homes are exploiting clients and running up profits, Englander said, and often provide lousy care in squalid conditions.

But critics say the city already has nuisance laws that could be enforced, and that Englander's proposal will outlaw good programs along with the bad ones.

"Every single nonprofit and government agency involved in housing and homelessness is opposed," said the Inner City Law Center's Adam Murray.

New Directions, a nonprofit veterans support group, is one of the agencies that's terrified about the possibility of Englander's proposal sailing through the City Council, where it could be put to a vote in the next few weeks. The agency invited me to Keaveney House, a sober-living home for female veterans on a leafy block in Mar Vista, saying that program is at risk. As in similar group homes or sober-living operations, each of the tenants at Keaveney signs a separate lease. But Englander's proposal would limit each home to one lease, to prevent people from piling into houses.

Six vets, formerly homeless and struggling with PTSD or substance abuse, live in the two-story Keaveney House. They either have jobs, are looking for work or attend school. A house mother supervises the operation, and the goal for the residents is to one day move into independent living. One woman described repeated sexual abuse during her military tour that left her self-medicating with alcohol and drugs. She has recently reunited with long-lost family members and is thrilled at the prospect of moving to Arizona to be with them soon. Another described flashbacks from the killing fields of the civil war in Somalia, and another said the support of Keaveney has been critical to her recovery from alcoholism.

"There's rules here, curfews, chores, groups. You have to stay clean, and we support each other, go to meetings, dances, movies, grocery shopping," she told me. "When someone's having a bad day, we're here for each other."

New Directions told me it had not received a single complaint about the years-long operation of Keaveney and two other recovery homes in the area. When I knocked on the door of the house next to Keaveney, I was told that not only were there no problems but that the mission of the agency, and the women in recovery, was admired and appreciated.

When I asked Englander if he intended for a program like Keaveney to be shuttered, he said absolutely not, and insisted that it wouldn't be.

Why not?

Because it has a license to operate, he said, and he only wants to go after unlicensed and unregulated homes.

Actually, Keaveney doesn't have a license. Sharon Rapport, an attorney with the Corporation for Supportive Housing, said many supportive housing facilities are regulated by federal and state agencies but are not required to get licenses unless they provide medical care. That's what's so critical about this proposal, Rapport said. Thousands of people — including probationers and parolees — could be thrown back onto the streets because of the sweeping nature of the ordinance.

When I got back to Englander, he said that if Keaveney was unlicensed, it's an illegal boarding home and he'd like to bring it into compliance with a variance, or by tweaking his ordinance to allow more than just one lease per home.

Rather than sink any further into this back and forth, I'd like to make an observation and a suggestion.

Englander sounds to me like he went into this with good intentions, and he said he's still willing to tweak his proposal. He told me his late sister was disabled and so was his late father, a vet. He said he understands the need for more supportive housing in anticipation of the returning armies of combat-rattled vets, and he believes people with disabilities and other challenges ought to be part of our communities rather than isolated from them.

Before Englander's proposal goes to the full City Council for a vote, reasonable people from both sides should lock themselves in a room until they've got a compromise that nails the nuisance homes without harming the good ones.

Now get to work.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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