Council committee backs revised ordinance on sober living residences
By Gary Walker
A key Los Angeles City Council committee is recommending that the city’s governing body pass an ordinance regulating so-called “community care facilities” with one new change from its previous iteration.
The council’s Public Safety Committee voted unanimously Dec. 10 to recommend approving an ordinance that has generated a slew of controversy throughout the city and has neighbors drawing battle lines over how sober living facilities and group homes should be legislated.
The proposed municipal law seeks to create new regulations that would govern lease agreements for those residing in community care homes. If the ordinance is approved, these residences and sober living facilities, which often include veterans and recovering addicts, would be prohibited in low density or residential neighborhoods.
The newly revised ordinance has been changed to include three leases for each household. It also exempts domestic violence transition and shelters, a severability clause so that if one part of the ordinance is sued, the rest of the ordinance will stay in place, and calls for a one-year review with a public hearing to see if there were any unintended consequences.
Nearly 50 organizations citywide, including many neighborhood councils, are in favor of the ordinance. Three local neighborhood councils, Westchester-Playa, Del Rey and the Mar Vista Community Council are included in that group.
The Venice Neighborhood Council is the only local board in The Argonaut coverage area that opposes the ordinance.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents parts of the west San Fernando Valley, is the author of the ordinance.
“The community care ordinance is common-sense legislation that has been developed to address the proliferation of unlicensed nuisance group homes and boarding facilities, which have had a huge negative impact on single family neighborhoods in my district in the Northwest San Fernando Valley and in neighborhoods all across the city of Los Angeles,” Englander wrote earlier this year in a letter to his constituents.
“There are a great number of these unlicensed, unregulated facilities, most of which are for-profit businesses operating in residential areas.”
The Los Angeles Police Department recently weighed in on the ordinance. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck, in an Aug. 14 letter, labeled alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment, community care facilities, parolee-probationer homes and boarding and rooming houses as “high risk” and asked that additional amendments be added to the ordinance.
“As the ordinance stands, a number of deficiencies were discovered that have the potential to increase criminal activity and affect quality of life issues of the surrounding communities,” Beck wrote.
LAPD suggestions include mandating that these facilities be bonded, state licensed, insured, and granted a business license from the city’s Office of Finance, and that they be restricted from operating within 1,000 feet from a liquor store, motel, school, recycling center and marijuana dispensaries. The police recommendation also establishes a standardized visitation policy for all “high risk” facilities “that regulates visitation and thwarts overcrowding, subleasing, squatting, etc.”
Proponents of the new municipal law applauded the chief’s suggestions.
“We welcome Chief Beck’s proposals,” said coalition leader Rebecca Lobl. “Our goal is to maintain the quality of life in the city’s residential neighborhoods, while also allowing for residential living arrangements for those who need group homes and services. There needs to be a balance.
“We look forward to working with Chief Beck and the council to ensure that the city adopts an ordinance that protects communities throughout Los Angeles while also establishing a framework for well-run group living facilities that help the inhabitants of these facilities transition back to productive lives.”
Mar Vista Community Council Chair Sharon Commins also supports Beck’s recommendations.
“I have read the chief’s letter. Hopefully, his points will be studied carefully, given recent headlines and the realignment property crime spike that occurred in the North Valley area,” she said. “Public safety is important to all of us and we must work together to achieve it.”
Earlier this month, four people were killed outside an unlicensed sober living home in Northridge.
New Directions, a social service agency that provides housing and rehabilitation to homeless veterans, is one of dozens of nonprofit organizations opposing Englander’s ordinance. The revisions to the proposal by the Public Safety Committee have not changed the mind of one of the organization’s top executives.
“We have occupancy agreements with each individual client and (the ordinance) would make it more difficult for them to find housing (if it is approved),” said New Directions Vice President of Development and Marketing Cindy Young.
New Directions has a facility for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in Del Rey called Chris’ Place and residences in Mar Vista for female veterans called Mitchell House and Keaveney House.
The United Way and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce have also stated their opposition to the proposed ordinance.
Other organizations that are against the ordinance do not dispute that there are rooming houses and some sober living homes that could be in violation of city laws, but say these actions could be handled through an abatement process.
Los Angeles has an abatement program that is “underfunded and underutilized,” says Michelle Uzeta, legal director of the Disability Rights Legal Center.
“Focusing on improving the efficiency of that program, rather than imposing unlawful restrictions on tenants that have a disparate impact on sub-categories of people such as people with disabilities, would be a much wiser plan for Los Angeles,” added Uzeta, who is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School.
“The proposed ordinance – even with the suggested modifications – is nothing more than a restrictive covenant meant to keep vulnerable people including people of disabilities, people fighting addiction, veterans, immigrants, people of color and parolees, from affluent communities and prohibit social and economic diversity and mobility.”
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl said he sympathizes with residents who have been subjected to sober living homes where there have been abatement problems but thinks the ordinance, even with the proposed changes, is too broad.
“We need a stronger presence from Building and Safety,” the councilman said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water because of a few bad apples.”
Sherri Akers, a Mar Vista resident, takes a different position than her community board.
“I completely understand that we need more regulation on group homes – but as I understand this ordinance, it would make a group home financially unsustainable and also undermine what makes them an effective environment for recovery,” she said. “I suspect that none of the authors of this ordinance have known the pain of having a loved one who needs these resources.”
Having a family member who resides in one of these facilities gives Akers a personal experience with the possible ramifications that could happen with the proposed ordinance.
“I have a loved one currently living in a sober living home. I am incredibly grateful that she is in a community where she can put down roots and build a new life,” Akers said.
“She is able to find work that is accessible by bike or bus; she is able to attend meetings with people that will grow to become friends and she can walk to a daily yoga class. She is learning how satisfying it can be to live a normal life and she is doing it in an environment that does not feel like a punishment that she wants to flee from.
“A house with more than one or two members is an essential element of recovery – combining those who are taking their first steps with those who are able to reach back and offer a helping hand,” she continued. “Recovery doesn’t happen in a month or two – it takes years.”
Uzeta characterized Beck’s suggestions as a pretext for discrimination. “Unwarranted and unnecessary recommendations, replete with stereotypes,” she described.
Rosendahl said he plans to have a conversation with Englander before the council considers the ordinance.
“This came before (the Public Safety Committee) with very little notice,” Rosendahl noted. “I’m going to urge (Council President Herb Wesson) to hear the entire scope of public sentiment on this ordinance, which includes people from my district and others around the city who think it goes too far.”
Akers would like her community council to have an open community forum in order for all to offer their opinions on the controversial ordinance before the City Council hears it.
“I have urged Mar Vista to host a community meeting where we can view the issue from all sides and approach it in a caring, supportive way that serves the needs of all stakeholders – both as property owners and as family members,” she said. “I admire and appreciate the effort that Councilman Bill Rosendahl is making to give the public a chance to collaborate fully on this.”
The City Council is expected to hear the ordinance in January. §