Despite an outpouring of opposition from advocates for seniors, the homeless, the disabled and recovering addicts, the Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday advanced a measure to better regulate group homes in single-family neighborhoods.
The 12-1 vote sends the measure to the city attorney's office, which will draft an ordinance for a final council vote. But some concerns, raised as recently as last week, remain to be ironed out and that prompted Councilman Richard Alarcon and other opponents to urge city staff to return to the drawing board.
"This is not ready for prime time," Alarcon told his colleagues. "This has serious problems."
The has been three years in the making, prompted in large part by complaints from neighborhoods throughout Los Angeles of problem group homes, many of them sober living homes. Such homes are not regulated by the state but are protected to some extent by state and federal housing anti-discrimination laws, making it difficult and time-consuming for the city to shut them down.
City staff's proposed solution was two-fold. First, any new state-licensed care home proposed for single-family neighborhoods would have to meet city performance standards for such things as parking, noise and lighting. Secondly, it tackles the problem of the unlicensed sober living homes, many of which are little more than "bootleg boardinghouses," the council was told.
Boardinghouses aren't allowed in single-family neighborhoods, but there are homes throughout the city that rent out rooms, and even beds, to 10, 20 or more tenants. Granada Hills resident Maria Fisk told the council Wednesday that one home near her had 70 tenants. To combat this, the city wants to redefine a family unit as one group of unrelated people living under a single lease, rather than individual leases.
As a result, a home where a group of people is living together to support their recovery is differentiated from a boardinghouse-like arrangement, City Planner Tom Rothmann explained.
"Once you have a second lease in your house you are running a business," he said.
Thirty-three Neighborhood Councils voted to support the measure, and Wednesday's hearing drew the usual litany of complaints from residents who live near sober living homes. Speaker after speaker told of finding group home tenants passed out on their lawns, panhandling, fighting and openly drinking or dealing drugs.
Councilman Paul Koretz told of his own experience with one such home that had been the source of complaints. When he went to the neighborhood to investigate he found many residents preparing to move rather than continue living next to the home.
"If it's a choice between the people in need of these homes or the people being forced out of their neighborhoods, I have to side with the people in my neighborhoods," Koretz said.
Opponents of the measure, however, far outnumbered supporters. Some were recovering addicts who said they had been helped by the neighborhood setting of their homes. Others were facility operators worrying that new regulations would put them and other homes out of business. And many were representing nonprofit groups who fear the ordinance would weigh most heavily on seniors, veterans and the disabled by drastically reducing housing options. Already, the city faces a huge shortage of affordable housing, advocates told the council.
Alarcon jumped on the point, asking how the city could support a myriad of services for the homeless while producing an ordinance that narrows their housing options.
"We can't afford to shut out so many people who have already been shut out," he said.
The single-lease requirement received a drubbing from many of the speakers and sparked questions from council members. Critics said it could prevent people from living together for economic reasons and would do little to tackle problem homes. But the one issue that seemed to stop many council members in their tracks was the question of housing vouchers and federal funds. Many federally funded programs require voucher recipients to have a lease with their landlord, they explained.
And the city Housing Department said the ordinance could jeopardize millions in federal funds for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which buys and restores foreclosed houses and then sells them to low-income families and nonprofits. The Housing Department only notified the council of the potential problem last Thursday and its attorneys had not had a chance to review it, prompting an angry response from Councilman Greig Smith, who originally proposed the group home ordinance.
Addressing a Housing Department representative, Smith chided the department for not participating in the three-year effort to draft the ordinance.
"Quit showing up at the last minute with objections to an ordinance that has been in the making for three years," he said.
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'It was like they had more rights than the people who lived here and paid property taxes,' neighbor says.
Sober-living homes exist in residential areas all over Los Angeles, causing friction between neighbors and the homes' operators and residents.
A proposed law to regulate unlicensed homes in L.A. has both sides marshaling their forces.