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Northridge shootings focus concerns over illegal boarding homes

December 4, 2012 |  6:58 am

As detectives continue to search for the suspect who shot and killed four people on a quiet Northridge street, neighborhood leaders say the case adds new urgency to the long-running debate in L.A. over how and whether to crack down on illegal boardinghouses.

The Devonshire Street home where the two men and two women were slain Sunday was an illegal boarding house, officials said. Councilman Mitchell Englander called the conditions inside "deplorable."

Mattresses and portable stoves were scattered about, and officials believe that as many as 17 people were living inside. It had so much debris and so many partitions that one room could be accessed only through a window. A trail of extension cords led investigators to the backyard, where several makeshift living quarters had been assembled.

PHOTOS: Four killed in shooting at Northridge home

Yag Kapil, who said he has owned the property since 1968, told The Times on Monday that he rents rooms out but denies he was running a boarding home.

"It's just a house," he said.

L.A. zoning code prohibits boardinghouses — defined as dwellings with up to five rented rooms — in both single-family and low-density residential zones, said Jane Usher, special assistant to City Atty. Carmen Trutanich.

But officials said illegal boarding homes have proliferated in recent years, and cited several incidents at such houses, including a fatal fire last month at a Pasadena home where 19 people were living. Two people died in the fire, which authorities said was started by a tenant.

Englander said he's come across a home with 40 residents. He said the wording of the city's boardinghouse law is antiquated and unclear, making it hard for city inspectors and prosecutors to pursue cases.

He supports legislation that would require homes with multiple leases to obtain a license, either through the state or the city's planning department. That, he said, would allow inspectors to make routine checks and better ensure suitable living conditions.

The City Council has already spent nearly two years debating a proposal that city lawyers say would make it easier to enforce its ban on boardinghouses in low-density neighborhoods. That proposal would have redefined the term "boardinghouse" to mean any place that has separate guest rooms with two or more leases.

The idea won support from community groups, which also have complained about problems at group homes and sober-living facilities in residential neighborhoods.

But it is strongly opposed by anti-poverty advocates and groups that serve people struggling to recover from drug or alcohol addiction, who said families struggling through the economic downturn would be forced out on the street if the measure passed.

They also argued that cracking down on such facilities could violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and fair-housing laws.

Greg Spiegel, director of public policy for the Inner City Law Center, said the city needs better enforcement of existing building safety laws, not new regulations.

"This [ordinance] is going to wipe out tons of good housing because the city's not willing to differentiate between good actors and bad actors," Spiegel said. "If this home in Northridge was a bad actor, the city should go out and investigate. That's the city's responsibility."

Maria Fisk, a community activist who lives eight blocks from the Northridge house, said she's frustrated that the council has failed to move forward with stronger laws.

"We've been promised every month since April" that the council was about to take action, she said.

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— Kate Mather and David Zahniser

Photo: People move items in the back of a home in the 17400 block Devonshire Street in Northridge on Monday. Two men and two women were shot to death outside the house the day before. Police are still looking for the shooter. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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