Northridge Slayings Renew Effort to Regulate Group Homes

A long-delayed group living ordinance was sent to the City Council in wake of quadruple homicide

In the wake of four slayings outside an unlicensed boarding home in Northridge earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council will consider a measure to tighten controls of single-family homes being rented out to multiple occupants.

The Council's Public Safety Committee approved on Monday a "Community Care Facilities Ordinance," with amendments by Committee Chairman Mitchell Englander. It's expected the measure will be considered by the full council next month.

Momentum for such a measure has ebbed and flowed in City Hall for nearly a decade. A draft of the ordinance was released by the City Attorney's office on Sept. 13, 2011, but the City  Planning Commission failed to take required follow-up action.

It is estimated there are hundreds if not thousands of unlicensed group homes throughout the city of Los Angeles, many of them in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

Boarding houses, strictly speaking, are already prohibited in single-family neighborhoods. But under the current vague definition of "family" in the municipal code, group homes have been able to take the position that residents are living together as a family, and thus are not in violation.

The slayings of two men and two women on Dec. 2 at a house in the 17400 block of Devonshire Street renewed focus on the issue. The criminal investigation led to the discovery that  17 persons were living inside the house and outbuildings, which allegedly had been added without permits.

Timeline: Northridge Quadruple Homicide

"It was clear to everyone that there were numerous life and safety issues at the property that were putting the residents and the community at risk," Los Angeles Police Capt. Kris Pitcher told the committee Monday.

During Monday's hearings, neighborhood groups and homeowners associations again called for reform.

"We want protection not only for our communites, but also for the residents of these homes," said Barbara Broide, of the homeowners association for Westwood residents south of Santa
Monica Boulevard.

In the opposite corner, several social service organizations, including disability rights advocates, LA Can, and United Way, again expressed concern restrictions would lead to the closure
of some group homes, sending residents onto the street.

"If you allow this proposal to go through, you're going to destroy lives," the committee was told by Lowell Jones, of the Amity Foundation, which provides rehabilitation from substance abuse.

In non-licensed facilities in single family houses, the proposed ordinance attempts to control occupancy indirectly by limiting the number of leases permitted. Members of a family living together under one lease would count the same as a single occupant with a lease.

The 2011 draft would have allowed only a single lease per home. Englander's amendment, incorporated in the new proposal, would permit three.

For enforcement, the city would rely on tips or complaints, though sometimes neighbors are afraid to come forward, Englander acknowledged. Only now is it known that neighbors were aware for several years of problems at the Devonshire Street house where the homicides occurred, but kept quiet in fear of retaliation.

"At least neighbors will now will know there's a process. Their complaints won't fall on deaf ears," Englander said.

The ordinance also addresses residences for those on parole or probation, and would permit three per housing unit. After the hearing, Broide and Maria Fisk of Granada Hills expressed worries that Englander had compromised too much and weakened the ordinance.

Asked to respond, Englander said he is seeking "balance."

As now drafted, the ordinance anticipates the need for revisions downstream, and if passed next month, would return to the City Council for review in 2014.

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