Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Westchester) is encouraged that the Los Angeles City Council chose to postpone voting on a contentious ordinance after hearing from a housing official who informed them of the potential legal consequences if the proposed law were approved in its current form.
Los Angeles Housing Director Mercedes Marquez, who worked in the Obama administration in the civil rights section of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, told the council at its Jan. 30 meeting that an ordinance that would outlaw community care facilities in most residential neighborhoods could likely put the city in jeopardy of violating federal housing policy.
In prior Argonaut stories, attorneys from various law firms who represent housing non-profits had raised the possibility of the ordinance violating federal housing laws.
Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents a large constituency in the San Fernando Valley, is the sponsor of the ordinance that would create new conditions and regulations for sober living residences, boarding houses and group homes.
“I’m very happy that (the City Council) listened to the opposition to this ordinance and that they are now aware of what HUD rules are,” Waters told The Argonaut.
New Directions, a social service agency that provides housing and rehabilitation to homeless veterans, has three residences in Waters’ district that would be impacted by the ordinance: Keaveny House and Mitchell House in Mar Vista, where female veterans reside, and Chris’ Place in Del Rey.
Englander submitted his proposal to his council colleagues after receiving complaints from constituents about boarding homes and sober living residences, which are home to recovering addicts, that were causing nuisances in their neighborhoods, including violating zoning and parking regulations.
Opponents of the ordinance counter that it is far too broad and would displace veterans, recovering substance abusers and those who choose to live together who may not be related.
Waters says she is aware that there are situations where there are group homes and sober living facilities in residential neighborhoods that may be engaging in unlawful conduct, but she is also concerned about the possible dislodging of veterans and others who may not be able to easily find affordable housing.
“We have a severe housing problem that needs to be addressed,” said the congresswoman, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, which has oversight over HUD.
After hearing from Marquez, the council created an ad hoc committee to look at some of the concerns that were raised by supporters and opponents of the emotionally charged proposal.
Matt Myerhoff, Englander’s communications director, said Englander feels that the ordinance doesn’t need any retooling.
“We were very satisfied with the ordinance as it stood,” Myerhoff said.
The specter of possibly losing federal funding, which some calculate to be as high as almost $1 billion, gave some of the council members pause before the scheduled vote.
Karen Wolfe, a Venice resident, was amazed to learn that the council appeared to only consider the possible ramifications of being in violation of federal law until last month.
“It was very surprising to hear that they didn’t know about the HUD funding and (possible litigation),” she said. “Others had warned them of that possibility previously and it felt like it had fallen on deaf ears.
“Los Angeles is no stranger to federal oversight,” Wolfe added. “You would think that (city officials) would have understood that sooner.”
Wolfe was referring to the federal consent decree that the Los Angeles Police Department was under for nearly a decade. On Nov. 2, 2000, Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council approved an agreement with the Department of Justice in the aftermath of the Rampart division scandal, which federal investigators say uncovered a pattern of civil rights violations by police officers, which included framing suspects for crimes, false arrests and illegal searches and seizures.
LAPD was placed under federal oversight until a series of reforms were implemented. Over 100 convictions were overturned and the city paid nearly $125 million in civil lawsuits. The decree was lifted in July 2009.
The community care topic has grown more and more contentious between opponents and proponents of the measure since the decision to move the matter to the City Council’s ad hoc committee.
The Mar Vista Community Council, which was one of several Westside neighborhood councils to support the ordinance, heard two competing motions on the topic at its Feb. 12 meeting.
Resident Sherri Akers submitted a resolution asking the local council to request that City Council hear “the entire scope of public sentiment on this ordinance.”
The resolution also supported Rosendahl’s contention that the current proposed municipal law is far too broad.
Board member Ken Alpern’s motion was closer to Englander’s ordinance. It focused largely on the need for oversight of “unregistered, unlicensed and unregulated facilities,” planning and zoning enforcement and keeping the definitions that the Rosendahl-(Richard) Alarcon amendment removed.
Speakers like Brian Gordon, the former head of the Mar Vista Neighborhood Association, viewed the ordinance in terms of zoning and land use.
He said residences that cater to those who are recovering from addictions and similar facilities have often created zoning and parking difficulties for their neighbors.
“We all understand the value of having community care facilities in our neighborhoods,” Gordon said. “But we need to have some regulations that we can all live with.”
New Directions Director of Housing Gigi Szabo said the proposed ordinance would disrupt the lives of the organization’s patients if approved.
“(The ordinance) would deem Keaveny House illegal, even though it has never had any complaints,” she told the community council. “We need an ordinance that distinguishes between an illegal boarding house and a well-run program.”
The community council settled on hosting a community workshop “to explore pros and cons of proposed resolutions and calls for the City Council to authorize, pursuant to Section 908 of the (city) charter, neighborhood councils to hold citywide public hearings.”
Waters says she recognizes the need for local governments to address residents’ concerns, but especially when housing is involved, they must be extra careful.
“If this is an overreach, it will not be done and it will not stand,” the congresswoman asserted.
The council committee is expected to present its report to the City Council in May.
Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, did not return calls for comment.