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City Council to vote on controversial group home rules

January 30, 2013 | 12:24 pm

Jovenes Inc. boarding house in Boyle Heights
The L.A. City Council is set to vote Wednesday on a controversial set of regulations aimed at boarding houses and groups homes.

The proposed law, sponsored by Councilman Mitch Englander, includes stricter controls on the facilities, and is meant to rid neighborhoods of illegal, dangerous and overcrowded facilities.

How to accomplish that has been debated for nearly two years. But resolving the question took on new urgency in December after four people died in a shooting at an unlicensed Northridge boarding house.

Critics warn that the restrictions would hurt shelters, sober-living houses and other programs that help an array of needy residents, including thousands of homeless people in L.A. County.

"I was frankly appalled," said Fried Wittman, a UC Berkeley professor who has studied sober-living houses for more than 25 years and wrote a letter to the council. "It's trying to accomplish a sensible purpose, but it's barking up the wrong tree."

Under the ordinance, it would be illegal for more than four people to live in the same house or apartment when not functioning as a "single housekeeping unit," meaning the members share expenses, chores and living spaces.

It would also make it illegal for more than three people on probation or parole to live in the same apartment or hotel room unless landlords obtain a special permit. State-licensed facilities would be exempt.

Limiting individual leases undermines the work of homelessness and alcoholism support groups, Wittman said, because shared living spaces are more affordable for those beginning to live on their own. A personalized lease, including eviction clauses for drinking or not finding a job, teaches independence and holds tenants accountable, he said.

Adam Murray, executive director of the Inner City Law Center, said the proposed regulations would be impossible to enforce without extensive effort by city building inspectors. They would have to keep count of the number of people in each apartment, run background checks on tenants and monitor living habits to see if they share meals and finances.

If the ordinance passes, it will be challenged in court, Murray says.

Preventing groups of alcoholics or disabled veterans from living together, he said, appears to violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

Englander said city attorneys have examined the proposed ordinance and found no problems.

"It's absolutely the opposite" of what critics contend, he said. "We actually provide more opportunities and go further than any city in terms of what we offer."


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Photo: Gabriel Lewis sorts through his documents in his room at a boarding home owned by Jovenes Inc. in Boyle Heights. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times