First in a series.
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Two years ago, a woman showed up on the doorstep of Ted Guest's Granada Hills home to tell him of her plans to rent rooms to Cal State Northridge students in a house across the street.
Within a few months it became apparent to Guest and his Donmetz Street neighbors that something was amiss. The "students" appeared to be sporting prison and gang tattoos. There were loud, raucous parties. People were drinking and smoking pot in the street and having sex in cars. There were gunshots.
It would take nearly a year of bureaucratic and legal wrangling by the neighbors and the city of Los Angeles to rid the neighborhood of what city officials described as a group home housing ex-convicts.
"It was like they had more rights than the people who lived here and paid property taxes," Guest said.
Hundreds of sober living and care facilities operate in residential neighborhoods across the San Fernando Valley. This series looks at the problems caused by unlicensed homes and challenges the city faces in attempting to regulate them.
Planning Commission hearing begins 8:30 a.m. Thursday, City Council Chambers, Room 340, City Hall, 200 N. Spring St. The issue is No. 8 on the agenda.
Hundreds of care homes operate in Los Angeles County, many of which are licensed by the state of California and well-run, going almost unnoticed by their neighbors. But there are others—by some estimates dozens in the San Fernando Valley alone, although no one can seem to put a number on them—that are care homes in name only. They are operated for profit and protected by a bulwark of state and federal laws, and they have become a scourge in neighborhoods and a headache for city officials.
"We have had numerous complaints about these group homes," said Judith Daniels, president of the Chatsworth Neighborhood Council. "A major issue has been the fact that one of these homes can open without neighbors being notified or having the opportunity to comment as they can with zoning or land use issues."
Some residents and city officials say the problem has grown in recent years as the recession and foreclosure crisis has left many homeowners and banks scrambling to fill vacant houses with paying tenants.
Amid growing complaints, Councilman Greig Smith two years ago asked the city planning and building and safety departments to draw up an ordinance to regulate "sober living homes." It would prove to be a difficult task. Many cities have tried such ordinances only to have them thrown out by courts that ruled they discriminated against the disabled, a category that includes alcoholics and drug addicts.
City officials believe they have come up with an effective compromise that doesn't single out any specific group of people, but instead defines and regulates "boardinghouses." After undergoing many revisions, the proposed ordinance is to be considered by the city Planning Commission on Thursday.
"We feel we're being fair," said city planner Tom Rothmann. "We're not targeting any one group."
However, the proposal is facing opposition. Some neighborhood activists feel it contains too many loopholes, while advocates for sober living homes say it will hurt legitimate facilities without adequately addressing nuisance homes.
Problem homes operated solely for profit "don't care about laws, about ordinances," said Jeff Christensen, project director of The Sober Living Network, a Santa Monica-based nonprofit that sets standards for unlicensed residential facilities that house recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. The organization is advising its Los Angeles clients to oppose the ordinance, claiming the problem homes could be better controlled through the enforcement of nuisance laws.
Community care homes began appearing in greater numbers in the 1970s as federal and state governments moved to de-institutionalize people with disabilities and encourage their placement in residential settings. In 1973, California passed its Community Care Facilities Act, establishing a system for licensing and regulating facilities with seven or more residents.
Today, there are hundreds of licensed care facilities in the Valley, providing services to seniors, the developmentally and physically disabled, broken families, teen runaways and recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Their locations are of public record, with information readily available on state and federal Internet databases.
No such information is kept on so-called sober living homes which, when properly run, offer a drug- and alcohol-free living environment in a residential setting.
"In order to be a true sober living home there has to be no drinking or drug using," said Christensen, whose organization counts more than 200 such facilities among its members.
Anyone can call their rental a sober living home. The state specifically exempts such homes from licensing requirements, and there are no city or county ordinances that define sober living homes. Also, because addiction is considered a disability, sober living homes are protected by the federal Fair Housing and Americans With Disabilities acts, making enforcement of local zoning and nuisance laws difficult.
"Most often courts err on the side of caution," said Mitch Englander, chief of staff to Councilman Smith. "Judges don't want to displace residents or put them out on the street. They throw a lot of these cases out, for the most part."
Craigslist.com and other housing rental Web sites host dozens of listings for sober living homes throughout the Valley, including Chatsworth, North Hollywood, Van Nuys, Woodland Hills, Encino, Reseda, Northridge and Granada Hills. Many do not require deposits or credit checks.
The rent generally runs from $75 to $125 a week, which usually buys only a top or bottom bunk in four- or six-person rooms. Many homes have contracts with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to house parolees. The weekly rates and lack of required deposits tend to give many of these homes a transient nature, city officials say.
One such home in Chatsworth is at 10000 Independence Ave., across the street from Lawrence Middle School. The home's operator says he doesn't accept sex offenders.
For neighbors, the problems can vary. Parking is a common complaint. When homes have 10 to 20 adult occupants, most with their own vehicles, the only place to park is on the street, taking away parking for neighbors and their visitors.
But at a few homes, parking is the neighbors' least complaint. In hearings last year on the proposed ordinance, Valley residents complained about loud parties, open drug and alcohol use, fights and frequent police visits.
Englander, a reserve Los Angeles Police Department officer, heads a city task force that has targeted nuisance homes, including three in Granada Hills. He said the LAPD has a list of "dozens" of homes that get extra police patrols but it won't make that list public.
Generally, homes make the list when neighbors complain that something strange is happening on their street or there is a spike in crime, said a civilian who works with the LAPD on documenting problem homes.
"The only way we collect them is once in awhile there is a field investigation, people will get to talking, and we find out there's a group home," said the civilian, who asked not to be identified. "There might be car windows being broken and the neighbors don't know the source; they just think it's normal vandalism."
The proposed city ordinance attempts to bring city law in line with state regulations for licensed care homes making it easier for Los Angeles to impose performance standards, such as for parking and outdoor lighting. To address sober living homes, which are exempt from state regulation, the proposed ordinance adds a definition for boardinghouses. Such homes would be allowed only in areas zoned for apartments, unless granted a variance to be in single-family neighborhoods.
City officials say they are not singling out sober living homes. Rather, they are distinguishing between homes run as a family unit of recovering addicts and those run as a business.
Homes in which residents are on individual leases would be considered boardinghouses, said Rothmann, the city planner.
"Many sober living homes are operating on individual leases, which creates a transient situation," Rothmann said. "That would no longer be allowed. Hopefully, all of the home's residents would come in together and leave together, more like a traditional housekeeping unit."
The proposed ordinance would also prohibit homeowners in single-family neighborhoods from leasing rooms to more than one tenant if each tenant were on an individual lease. That prohibition would also extend to groups of college students living in a home under individual leases, Rothmann said.
A provision that would have banned homes from housing parolees in single-family neighborhoods was deleted from the final proposal going to the Planning Commission this week. Planning staff said they needed more time to study the idea after learning it could affect federal funding to aid parolees and juvenile offenders.
Rothmann acknowledged the ordinance isn't perfect, that homes housing multiple people on a single lease would still be allowed.
"It's really hard to have a one-size-fits-all ordinance," he said.
Maria Fisk, a Granada Hills resident whose neighborhood has been one of the focal points of city enforcement efforts, said the lack of effective laws has allowed problem homes "to get a foothold."
"Finally, we have an ordinance that is workable," said Fisk, who is co-founder of the Old Granada Hills Residents' Group.
Still, Fisk and others are concerned the single-lease requirement will let some problem homes off the hook. "Right now there are no conditions to prevent a lot of people signing one lease. So here we go back to square one."
Christiensen, of The Sober Living Network, thinks the ordinance goes too far. He said the city has created a monster in its attempt to craft a broad ordinance that a court would not find discriminatory. The proposed ordinance, he said, would touch all group homes, as well as homeowners who rent out rooms in their homes.
"It will affect everyone from students to seniors to the disabled," he said. "That's our beef against this ordinance."
The Donmetz Street house in Granada Hills that bedeviled Ted Guest and his neighbors was finally closed late last year. Guest said he is relieved but still shaken by the experience and the lengthy process it took to rid his neighborhood of the nuisance.
"Toward the end I couldn't take it anymore," he said. "Donmetz was the first victory, but there are more out there."
Wednesday: Group Home Operators Battle City Hall