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Neighbors Feel Squeezed by Home-Care Sites

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Doone Street was made for families.

It is a boulevard roomy enough for bicycles. The homes have bedrooms galore and yards big enough for a respectable game of touch football, deep enough to accommodate a swimming pool. An elementary school and a lazy park are a short stroller ride away.

But the feel of the street is changing, residents say. Their children have fewer playmates nearby. Signs reading “Caution: Oxygen in Use” are more common than the cheery “It’s a Boy” birth announcement banners of a few years back. Sport utility vehicles sometimes angle with ambulances for space.

That is because Doone Street, all 25 homes of it, has become a magnet for residential care facilities for the elderly, homes where fragile grandparents can receive round-the-clock care in a noninstitutional facility.

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Three board-and-care facilities sit in a row on the odd-numbered side of Doone Street. Two of those have been temporarily closed since June 4, but another is being constructed a block south. Two dozen more are a mile or two away.

In fact, 28 of Thousand Oaks’ 29 licensed residential care facilities for the elderly occupy a modest wedge of central Thousand Oaks bounded by the California 23 and Ventura Freeway and Lynn and Olsen roads.

Doone Street resident Paul Murray says he believes in the cozy atmosphere of the facilities and wouldn’t mind having one on his block. Having three is another story.

“This won’t be a residential neighborhood for much longer,” lamented Murray, a father of four. “It’s being turned into a residential care for the elderly subdivision. . . . My concern is, as the elderly move in in mass quantities, the children stop coming.”

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Murray’s concerns echo debates across the state and nation about “special-needs housing” for the elderly, disabled or those recovering from drug and alcohol addictions. The decades-old societal push to remove people from gray institutions into small, home-like settings in family neighborhoods doesn’t always sit well with neighbors, who complain of traffic, loitering and loss of property value because of the facilities.

From San Mateo to San Pedro, local officials say they are powerless to tackle the perceived over-concentration problem because of state and federal laws that preempt their authority.

4 Facilities--2 on Doone Street--Closed

It was one specific incident--the recent closure of four Thousand Oaks board-and-care facilities operated by one woman--that spurred the debate here.

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On June 4, state officials shuttered Grazyna (Grace) Baran’s four homes--two of them on Doone Street--after one of her elderly clients was admitted to Los Robles Regional Medical Center with a bone-grazing bedsore on her tailbone, a gash on her cheek and a urinary tract infection. Within a week of her May admission, the unidentified woman died of causes that authorities have not disclosed.

State officials may revoke Baran’s license if the suspected neglect is substantiated. Police investigated the death as possible elder abuse, and on Tuesday turned their case over to prosecutors.

While those investigations move forward, local officials are conducting another sort of inquiry into the homes.

Their objective: gaining city and county authority into where the homes are located and over how concentrated they can be in one area, such as Doone Street and the surrounding Shadow Oaks neighborhood.

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“Every community needs facilities like these--I certainly don’t deny that,” said Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Judy Lazar, a former Shadow Oaks resident. “But is it unreasonable to expect them to all be located in one particular area. It’s an unfair burden on residents. . . . They’re just too clustered. It’s really frustrating, because there are not too many options on the local level.”

On Friday, Lazar and county Supervisor Frank Schillo, a current Shadow Oaks resident, will convene a meeting to look at options for some modicum of local control over the state-licensed facilities. Suggestions include requiring special use permits for residential care facilities for the elderly and a 1,000-foot distance between homes.

Under current law, neither possibility is very likely to fly because state law requires that “special-needs housing” for six or fewer people be treated no differently than residential housing for any other family. Thus, the state Department of Social Services is solely responsible for licensing residential care facilities for the elderly.

Fear of Closing Out Elderly and Disabled

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The idea of concentration limits is anathema to most in the advocacy community, who fear that such laws would become a convenient excuse to close out the elderly and disabled altogether.

Local officials say they don’t want to shut special-needs housing out of their community. By the same token, they don’t want to be shut out of decisions about placement of the facilities.

As it now stands, city officials are not told when residential care facilities open in their area. Nor do they usually know how many facilities are within their boundaries or where precisely they are situated.

The only tip-off Thousand Oaks typically gets when a new residential care facility opens is the request for a permit to add new sliding glass doors, because such homes need several fire exits.

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“We have zero control over them,” said Geoff Ware, code compliance supervisor for Thousand Oaks. “We can’t license them as businesses because the state deems them a residential, rather than a business, use. We don’t regulate them. The only thing we can do is look at whether they meet residential building and zoning standards like any other house.”

What the city would like, Ware and others say, is the opportunity to maintain the character of neighborhoods. A chance to at least suggest residential care operators try to settle elsewhere if they are saturating neighborhoods.

For years, a variety of legislators have tried unsuccessfully to create some rules for concentration of residential care facilities. State Sen. Quentin L. Kopp attempted in 1996 to require 300 feet between such facilities. Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed that legislation. Another legislator’s proposal to require a 1,000-foot separation died in committee a year later.

Kopp (I-San Francisco) did convene a task force on the residential care matter late last year. But the task force’s group of city and county elected officials--as well as advocates for the elderly, disabled and recovering--was unable to agree on any guidelines. About to be forced out of the Legislature by term limits, Kopp has dropped the attempt to create such guidelines.

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But the National League of Cities and Rep. Brian P. Bilbray, a San Diego Republican, are pushing changes to federal fair housing law that would allow cities some say in the density of residential care facilities.

The bill is not expected to reach a vote this session, said Cameron Whitman, a lawyer with the National League of Cities. But it very likely will be reintroduced next session. Lazar said she hopes to persuade Ventura County’s representatives to sign on.

‘Over-Concentration’ Definition Debated

But such limitations raise hackles in the advocacy and civil rights communities.

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“There are many people who have objections to having any living arrangements for people with disabilities and the elderly in their neighborhoods--that’s why we have fair housing regulations,” said Eric Gelber, an attorney with Protection and Advocacy Inc., a disabled rights group.

“For a lot of people, ‘over-concentration’ means one facility. One facility is too many for a lot of people when it comes to their neighborhoods. . . .

“It is no more appropriate to say there are too many blacks or too many Asians than it is to say there are too many elderly or too many people with disabilities moving into our neighborhood. It’s the same equal opportunity for housing. The law views it as the same,” Gelber said.

Another consultant with a residential care organization said he prefers to see facilities scattered throughout a city.

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“I think the industry has to regulate itself when it comes down to having two, three, four [facilities] in one area or cul-de-sac. I don’t think that should be done,” said Charles W. Skoien Jr., who works with the Community Residential Care Assn. of California. “The key thing is a good-neighbor policy. The individual [administrator] has a responsibility not to develop new ghettos, if that’s the complaint.”

No one would call Shadow Oaks a ghetto.

Home prices range from $200,000 to $250,000 in this neighborhood of ranch houses and manicured lawns.

But some residents are increasingly wary that their neighbors’ homes will be snapped up by residential care facility operators as soon as the homes go on the market.

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They realize that a mix of economics, geography and building design is conspiring against them. Turns out, their neighborhood of multi-bedroom, single-story, reasonably priced homes (near two freeways and a hospital) is a plum location for the elderly.

As California’s population grays, more and more of the facilities are likely, Skoien said, citing estimates that the number of residents over 85 will grow from about 500,000 to 1.1 million over the next 15 years.

So Murray and many of his neighbors are rooting for new legislation.

“I certainly see the need for these facilities,” Murray said. “We’re all going to get old, and if your family can’t take care of you, you’d rather be in a house than a large facility. But we have to have some balance here.”

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In the Neighborhood

Nearly 30 board-and-care homes for the elderly are clustered in older neighborhoods in the central part of Thousand Oaks. Four, all operated by the same woman, were temporarily closed by state regulation after one resident allegedly suffered neglect and later died.


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