The U.S. Justice Department has thrown a possible kink in Los Angeles' attempt to regulate group homes in single-family neighborhoods, entering into a lawsuit challenging a similar law enacted by Newport Beach.
The department's Civil Rights Division earlier this month filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of three sober living home operators who allege that the Orange County city's law discriminates against people with disabilities. People addicted to alcohol and drugs are considered disabled in the eyes of federal law.
With the L.A. City Council expected to vote in coming months on , the federal intervention cheered advocates for sober living in Los Angeles.
"We would hope that with that brief, somebody at the city attorney's office will reevaluate their ordinance," said Jeff Christensen, a spokesman for the Santa Monica-based Sober Living Coalition.
The city attorney’s office did not return phone calls for comment. But a spokesman for Councilman Mitch Englander, one of the prime backers of Los Angeles' ordinance, said the Justice Department’s action won’t stop the city. The city attorney is researching answers to some questions raised by another councilman, and the ordinance could be coming to the City Council before Thanksgiving, said Englander spokeman Matt Myerhoff.
Newport Beach enacted its law in January 2008 in an attempt to regulate the number of sober living facilities springing up in the seaside community’s neighborhoods, drawing the ire of residents. Sober living organizations immediately filed a federal lawsuit, arguing the law was intended to prevent additional homes from opening in violation of the Fair Housing Act and Americans With Disabilities Act. Last March, , saying the sober living homes failed to show they were harmed by the ordinance. The Justice Department in its brief said the judge ignored evidence that the city was intentionally targeting sober living homes, noting that residents at hearings said the homes housed “criminals.”
The Justice Department also pointed out since the ordinance was enacted no new sober living homes have opened in Newport Beach.
Los Angeles has been wrestling with its own group home ordinance since 2007 when then-Councilman Greig Smith first proposed one to address a rising chorus of complaints from his Valley neighborhoods, including Chatsworth. Some complaints focused on true sober living homes, but the bigger problem for many Valley residents were virtual boardinghouses that called themselves sober living homes and rented rooms and even just bunk beds to dozens of transient tenants.
In drafting Los Angeles' ordinance, city planning staff turned to Newport Beach’s effort after determining it, among other California cities’ ordinances studied, was most likely to survive a legal challenge. Among elements Los Angeles borrowed from Newport Beach was a requirement that all tenants in a house be under one lease, the idea being to ensure that residents in a house in a single-family neighborhood be a single family unit rather than a group of transients coming and going at different times.
The Justice Department argued in its brief that the single-lease requirement was a hurdle intentionally designed to discourage sober living homes.
Christensen, of the Sober Living Coalition, said Los Angeles needs to take the Justice Department's action seriously. The department wouldn't enter the case "unless there was a pretty cut-and-dried violation" of federal laws, he said.
"Before the City Council acts on this it would be prudent to take another look at it."