Years after Los Angeles lawmakers began debating how to crack down on troublesome boarding houses, the city is again struggling to address neighborhood complaints without harming shared homes serving the disabled and needy.
Councilman Mitch Englander has championed new restrictions in response to complaints that homes meant for single families are being rented to dozens of people, creating neighborhood nuisances. Other critics contend that some houses billed as sober-living homes do nothing to stop drug and alcohol abuse.
"How can a business open here?" said Fairfax district homeowner David Reid, who has complained for more than four years about a home on his street. "It's a de facto hotel."
Deadly shootings a year and a half ago at an unlicensed Northridge boarding house renewed calls for City Hall action, with some Angelenos worried about abuse and exploitation of tenants. But a subsequent attempt to tighten the rules stalled after running into opposition from groups that help those with disabilities and other special needs. They warned that new restrictions could curtail affordable housing and run afoul of anti-discrimination laws.
City officials have drafted a revised proposal — only to encounter many of the same complaints. The thorniest question is what constitutes a "family" under city codes allowing a group of people to legally share a home in L.A.'s single-family neighborhoods.
Current city codes describe a family as any group of people who share space — living, cooking and dining areas. Planners say that definition is looser than codes in other cities and can overlap with the definition of "boarding houses," which are barred from neighborhoods zoned exclusively for single-family homes.
The planning department recently recommended a new definition of family under city codes: a group of "non-transient" housemates who operate as a "single housekeeping unit," sharing household duties and activities such as meals, chores and home maintenance. City planning officials say the revised definition would be in line with rules in most California cities.
But earlier this month, the city housing department told a City Council committee that the proposed rules could pose "privacy and fair housing concerns." Karren Lane, who directs an alliance of social service providers in South Los Angeles, said the focus on regulating household relationships is "blatantly an attempt to restrict who can live in what neighborhood."
"It doesn't deal with the issue of disorderly or disruptive neighbors, which is a legitimate concern," Lane said.
Inner City Law Center, which aids low-income clients, said people with disabilities might not be able to share chores or maintenance, as required of a "family" under the proposed code. Others worry that roommates at homes for recovering addicts or the disabled could risk being deemed "transient."
On a tranquil street in West Adams lined with flowering trees, about a dozen women rent beds in a private home with a closely trimmed lawn and a welcoming porch. Some are recovering from drug addiction. Others grapple with mental illness or simply suffered a bout of bad luck.
"People come in broken, homeless, and we make you feel welcome," said Traci Martin, the "house mother" who works for reduced rent at the home.
They divide up chores but cook and eat as they wish. They attend support group meetings but set their own schedules. Each pays her own way, sometimes with the help of disability payments or other government aid.
Berckess Frierson fixed herself breakfast in the kitchen one recent morning, her last day before heading to New York. Before moving in this spring, Frierson, who said she is fighting skin cancer, lived in a homeless shelter downtown. The home, Chains of Love, has provided her "a positive route to life," she said.
The shelter "wasn't really conducive to my health," Frierson said.
Women can stay as long as they want, but some leave quickly after reconnecting with family or finding roommates, said Jason Robison, program director of SHARE! Collaborative Housing, which links people in need to private homes where they can rent beds. He said he worries the city could deem such renters "transient" and bar homes like Chains of Love from single-family neighborhoods — even though several neighbors said they have caused no problems.
Englander argued that any new restrictions would only affect problem properties because city code enforcement is driven by complaints. But others question how the city could enforce the rules fairly — or at all.
City inspectors "would have to come hang out in your house to find out if you eat meals together," said Paul Dumont, a housing rights advocate with the Sober Living Network, which encourages homes to meet quality assurance standards. "That leaves total discretion to the city to decide — did everybody make it to dinner?"
Besides changing the definition of "family," the planning department has suggested a new permit that would require added parking for homes with seven or more adults, and recommended streamlining the approval process for licensed homes serving those with special needs.
Critics argue that Los Angeles should focus on enforcing existing laws against nuisances. The city sharply reduced its code enforcement operation during the economic downturn: Inspectors who handle general complaints, including concerns about illegal boarding houses, dwindled from 125 to 50 between 2006 and 2013, according to city officials. Just five were restored this year.
In the stretch of Fairfax where Reid lives, building inspectors have been investigating the latest in a series of complaints surrounding a sober living home — a running battle that highlights the tensions underlying the City Hall debate.
Last year, officials issued a city order against the home for "unapproved use" as a boarding house. After "continued violations" this summer, the Fairfax case is being forwarded to the city attorney's office, Department of Building and Safety spokesman Frank Bush said last week.
Several previous investigations of the same house found no such violations, city records show. Reid and others say they've spent more than four years trying to get the city to take action against the home, lodging complaints with police and city inspectors. They recite a long list of grievances, including what they described as raucous arguments and cars clogging the street.
"It's worse than ever," said Sheryl Main, who lives on the same street.
Bodha Recovery Residences owner Steve Landman, whose for-profit group operates the home, disputed the allegations and said his residents had been harassed by neighbors who simply wanted them gone. Landman said the home has dozens of strict rules, including staying sober, that residents must follow.
"We're not doing anything wrong," Landman said. "The issues we've had with the neighbors have really been the neighbors."