Too Many Apartments and Group Homes


Visitor Question: Our County and City have repeatedly put sober living homes, homes for the previously chronically homeless and mentally ill along with an incredible amount of zones for apartment and low income housing into the Sylmar and neighboring communities. They have refused to spread the low income housing to the west end of the San Fernando Valley. What can we do?

A local news paper reporter called our community "the go-to" whenever the county wants to put in ANOTHER facility. We have organized a group and have lots of community support behind us.

We have been successful in changing a proposed homeless shelter unto a women's bridge home, but now there are two more apartment units catering to the chronically homeless (usually means drugs/mental illness) on city owned property. We don't know how to proceed.

Editors' Response:

As for the sober living homes and transitional homes for people coming out of homelessness or mental illness, the Supreme Court has ruled that group homes can't be excluded. For example, in the City of Edmonds v Oxford House case ruling in 1995, the court agreed with the parties that alcoholics and drug addicts were handicapped within the meaning of the Fair Housing Act, and found that the city could not limit the number of people in a group home unless the number of related family members living in a home also was limited. Of course the city did not limit the number of family members in a home.

So we can offer very little useful advice on transitional homes, except that fighting to upgrade your neighborhood in general will raise property values and make it considerably less attractive and feasible to locate such facilities near you.

Some cities have regulated a minimum distance required between such group homes, and thus far not had those regulations overruled by courts, as far as we know. You could ask your city attorney about the case law, if any, pertaining to this topic in your area.

But of course your city and county can and should do something about the quantity of zoning for multi-family housing if they consider it to be excessive. We should say that it is not at all unusual for a city to try to push all of the lower-income housing into one particular area; in fact it is typical. That doesn't make it good though, as you know.

So to impact this, you are going to have to stay on top of all applications to rezone property to any multi-family residential category in the city and the county. Ask these local governments if they distribute their plan commission agendas in advance. Agendas often are posted online, or other governments might have an e-mail list. Hopefully you won't have to physically go to the government centers to get an agenda. Then your group can attend every single public hearing and explain the impact of this concentration of apartments on your neighborhood.

If you can take photos or videos of the problems created by the concentration of rental and low-income housing in your neighborhood, those can be powerful influencers during the rezoning hearing. For more about strategies that are important during proposed rezoning, visit our page on rezoning opposition.

Admittedly, stopping any additional rezoning of land for apartments is of minimal help if there is already too much, as you say.

So you will need to work your elected officials to obtain more recognition of this problem. If either the city or county happen to be in the middle of a comprehensive plan revision, this is a lucky turn of events. That is the time when you could really argue for an actual reduction of the amount of zoning that would allow as-yet unbuilt multi-family apartments and low income housing. Again, gather your evidence about the unfair burden of concentrating such units in and near your neighborhood. Try to obtain counts of such units in other parts of the city and county. This will require investigating what research studies your city, county, or regional councils already have completed.

We should point out for our readers that a new comprehensive plan does not automatically accomplish any change of zoning districts or the zoning map. It merely paves the way for rezoning on a broad scale, and makes it legally defensible to begin taking such action.

If there is no pending comprehensive plan update, you will have to start gathering information on where lower-income rental apartments or facilities are located. Insist that the city’s and the county’s planners tabulate for you the best available data on renter income levels in various parts of your area. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey may provide some ready-made relevant information for them, or they might have to manipulate the data themselves to find answers for you. State or regional data sources may be better than anything available through the American Community Survey too.

If you find that available data is too limited, you could start asking your city or county to prepare a housing needs assessment, housing inventory, or housing study, using whatever scope and terminology they find comfortable. This would likely take a year or more to complete, but if you cannot get a pledge of action without additional data and studies, it will be worthwhile for you.

It is legally possible for a city or county to down zone areas at times other than comprehensive plan revision. “Downzone” means to assign a zoning classification that caps the maximum density of housing units at a lower number than is now possible with current zoning. Ultimately it sounds as if you want to see downzoning.

But nowadays cities and counties are often correctly afraid to downzone in the absence of a thorough and rigorous study of supply and demand, since the local governments don't want to be sued by the property owners who are downzoned. Almost all real estate appraisers would consider property values lower for land that is zoned single-family than multi-family, although exceptions are possible. Even if a city or county wins a lawsuit about zoning, the financial costs of defending itself can be astronomical.

In sum, then, you need to become very vigilant that more property is not zoned for multi-family development, and that development approvals on already zoned land are not handed out with too little deliberation. In your particular situation, fight specific development proposals even if the developer already has necessary zoning. That may stop a number of projects, or more likely, win favorable concessions from the developer.

If there is any history of community benefits agreements in your area, be sure to investigate whether you want to work with this tool, which enables you as a community group to bargain with a developer for specific changes to the proposal, in exchange for your group dropping its opposition.

In the longer run, if there is an opportunity to push your local planning departments to conduct specialized studies of this problem, take advantage of that. Frankly though planners and public officials are likely to respond to a considerable amount of public outcry about a particular issue, so make sure your group appears strong and organized every time you appear in public. If you can talk with a sympathetic planner about how to phrase your request for a study of this matter, then make sure all of your members know what terms to use, and ask for this study consistently when you show up to oppose a rezoning or a specific development approval.

It is also worthwhile to attempt to set up individual meetings with your city or county council members to talk informally about the problem and listen to their suggestions about how to handle it. You will learn from these meetings which ones are more likely to help you.

Incidentally, we think that you should determine whether your city or your county is the most important source of the problem, and then use that determination to decide where to concentrate your efforts. You can’t be asking your membership to attend public meetings a couple of nights a week indefinitely, so emphasize the most important meetings and events first.

Lastly, try not to sound judgmental with your elected officials about past mistakes. When you accuse them of channeling all the lower-income housing into one area, for instance, you may cause them to become defensive and less open to what you have to say. If you emphasize future actions rather than past actions, you will be more successful.

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