By Kate Mather and David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times –
NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — From the street, the tidy two-story ranch house didn’t stand out in the suburban Northridge tract northwest of Los Angeles.
But when police responded to the shooting deaths of four people there on Sunday, officers were shocked at what they found inside.
The home was littered with old food and trash. Mattresses and portable stoves were scattered about, and officials believe that as many as 17 people were living inside. It had so much debris and so many partitions that one room could only be accessed through a window. A trail of extension cords led investigators to the backyard, where several makeshift living quarters had been assembled.
“It was deplorable conditions,” said Councilman Mitchell Englander, who toured the home. “Very filthy, unsanitary.”
As detectives continue to search for the suspect, neighborhood leaders say the case adds new urgency to the long-running debate in L.A. over how and whether to crack down on illegal boarding houses.
The City Council has weighed new regulations for several years but has yet to pass anything despite the urgings of dozens of neighborhood councils as well as LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. City officials say illegal boarding houses have proliferated in recent years, with some homeowners taking on multiple tenants to make ends meet.
L.A. zoning code prohibits boarding houses — defined as dwellings with up to five rented rooms — in both single-family and low-density residential zones, said Jane Usher, special assistant to City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.
Officials point to several recent incidents at illegal boarding houses, including a fatal fire last month at a Pasadena home where 19 people were living. Two people died in the fire, which authorities said was started by one of the tenants.
Englander said he has come across a home with 40 people living inside.
The home where the shootings occurred had all the markings of an illegal boarding house, officials said. The building had been segmented into numerous small spaces with several entrances. The indoor staircase was blocked off, and an outdoor staircase had been built to create another entrance, Englander said.
Yag Kapil, who said he has owned the property since 1968, told the Los Angeles Times in an interview Monday that he does rent rooms out but denies he was running a boarding home. “It’s just a house,” he said.
Kapil, 78, who lives at the home, said he is bedridden and was sleeping at the time of the shootings. He said he didn’t hear anything and didn’t know the victims.
Authorities have not released the identities of the two men and two women killed, and police were still searching for a motive and a weapon.
Three of the victims — a man and two women — were shot on the walkway on the left side of the home, a source familiar with the case told the Times on Monday. They were all wearing hooded sweat shirts and were about 2 feet apart from each other. All three had at least one bullet wound to their heads.
One victim was crumpled on her knees, the source said, her face buried in the palms of her hands, “almost like she was praying.” The other two victims on the walkway were face down.
The fourth victim — a man — was farther away and appeared as if he was trying to run to the backyard when the shootings broke out. He had at least one gunshot wound, according to the source.
“It looked like a quick kill,” said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Englander said the wording of the city’s boarding house law is antiquated and unclear, making it hard for city inspectors and prosecutors to pursue cases.
He supports legislation that would require homes with multiple leases to obtain a license, either through the state or the city’s planning department. That, he said, would allow inspectors to make routine checks and better ensure suitable living conditions.
The City Council has already spent nearly two years debating a proposal that city lawyers say would make it easier to enforce its ban on boarding houses in low-density neighborhoods. That proposal would have redefined the term boarding house to mean any place that has separate guest rooms with two or more leases.
That idea won support from community groups, which have also complained about problems at group homes and sober-living facilities in residential neighborhoods.
But it is strongly opposed by anti-poverty advocates and groups that serve people struggling to recover from drug or alcohol addiction. They attended packed public hearings to complain that families struggling through the economic downturn would be forced out on the street if the measure passed. They also argued that cracking down on such facilities could violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and fair housing laws.
In April, the council’s planning committee sent the ordinance to the council floor without a recommendation. Four months later, Beck weighed in, advising council members that boarding houses, rooming houses, parolee homes and substance abuse facilities should be categorized as being at “high risk” of becoming nuisance properties — and be subject to special license and permitting requirements.
Greg Spiegel, director of public policy for the Inner City Law Center, said the city needs better enforcement of existing building safety laws, not new regulations.
“This (ordinance) is going to wipe out tons of good housing because the city’s not willing to differentiate between good actors and bad actors,” Spiegel said. “If this home in Northridge was a bad actor, the city should go out and investigate. That’s the city’s responsibility.”
City inspectors had visited the Northridge home in the last decade, records at the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety showed. The most recent was in June 2009, when code enforcement received a call reporting that the house’s garage had been converted into a dwelling without a permit. Three weeks later, an inspection concluded that the garage had not been converted and the case was closed.