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Los Angeles Daily News

Monday December 03, 2012

Northridge Slayings Spotlight Unlicensed Boarding Homes

By Eric Hartley and Susan Abram, Staff Writers
A Los Angeles county coroner's employee removes the second body from the scene were four people were found shot to death on Dec. 2, 2012, outside an illegal boarding home on Devonshire Street in Northridge. (Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News)

The killing of four people outside what appeared to be an illegal boarding house has cast a renewed spotlight on the proliferation of such homes and the health and safety of residents who live in them.

Los Angeles police offered no new details Monday about a suspect or the two men and two women found shot to death in the 17400 block of Devonshire Street at 4:25 a.m. Sunday.

Detectives told the Los Angeles Coroner's Office to delay releasing the names of the victims, who were found in a yard beside the five-bedroom house. Three were found face down and one man was face up. All were of Asian descent and their ages ranged from the 20s to the 40s.

It remained unclear Monday if the victims lived in the home.

"This particular home had not shown up on the radar," said Sgt. Jose Torres, with the LAPD's Devonshire Division.

"We had no idea of its existence. We rely heavily on the community, so we can go out and evaluate and assess the situation."

Torres said the proliferation of unlicensed boarding houses within his division's patrol area is of concern, because many of the homes in Northridge are large, and some residents want to make extra money.

But that may have consequences for the owners, who rent out to the wrong people, or those who live in the homes who may become exploited.

"You have good people trying to do the right thing and caught in bad situations," Torres said.

Yag Dutt Kapil, a 78-year-old immigrant from East Africa, owns the home in the 17400 block of Devonshire Street where the bodies were found, according to property records. He told the Daily News on Sunday he was in bed when the shooting occurred. He said he heard no shots, though whoever called 911 reported shouts, screams and gunfire.

Kapil said he is bedridden with diabetes and heart disease and has not left his home.

On Monday, Kapil continued to dispute reports that he operated an illicit boarding house, but said the people who lived at the home were not relatives. He said they were all gone after police searched the home on Sunday.

"They are strangers," he said of the boarders. Those who were shot outside his home, "were not related to those inside," he said.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander toured Kapil's home and told the Daily News the house was filthy, with mattresses scattered on floors and one bedroom door blocked by debris, meaning occupants must have had to enter and exit through a window.

LAPD detectives investigate four people shot and killed at a home in the 17400 block of Devonshire Street in Northridge about 4:30 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (Gene Blevins/Special to the Daily News)

More than a dozen people apparently lived in the house, which smelled of feces and urine, Englander said. He called it an illegal boarding house and exactly the type of unpermitted facility targeted by the city's pending boarding house ordinance.

The ordinance, designed to combat illicit group homes, has been stalled by years of opposition from group home operators and advocates for disabled residents and immigrants.

"While this was such a tragedy that took place in Northridge, when these tragedies come up, the City Council tries to respond to the situation with a sledgehammer approach," said Larry Gross, executive director for the Coalition for Economic Survival, a renters advocacy group.

He said the ordinance proposed by Englander would outlaw many legal facilities that help veterans, seniors and others.

But Englander said Monday that if anything, the ordinance would allow more access for those in need, and even offer wider latitude to those who want to operate licensed boarding homes.

Right now, city law defines a "boarding house" as one with fewer than five guest rooms where people pay for lodging, said Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the City Attorney's Office.

He said such renting of rooms is allowed only in residential areas zoned for multifamily homes.

Englander said the city ordinance would surpass the state's regulations. Under state licensing laws, six people can stay in a home.

If approved, proponents say it would provide clear guidelines for state-licensed homes and a proliferation of unlicensed boarding houses, in which property owners rent beds to cover costs.

"We're even much more liberal," Englander said. "We're not only going to allow the six, we're going to allow an unlimited number. When you have your license, you have checks and balances that makes sure residents are safe, and living in sanitary and healthy conditions."

On Sunday, inspectors from the city's Building and Safety Department investigated Kapil's home for potential nuisance, zoning and code violations, and health and safety infractions.

Officials had visited the home twice before Sunday, once in 2003 and once in 2009, department spokesman David Lara said.

A 2003 complaint reported illegal storage containers and additions done without permits. After the city issued an "order to comply," the owner removed the storage containers and a 6-foot-by-20-foot roof addition to the garage.

Other structures were allowed under decade-old permits, so that case was closed.

In 2009, a complaint said a garage had been converted into living quarters. But an inspector visited and found that wasn't true, so the complaint was closed, Lara said.

There had been no complaints about the house since 2009. Lara said inspectors weren't able to do much since the shooting because of the police investigation, but hope to return to the home in the next day or two. If violations are found, the owner could be fined and ordered to make repairs, Lara said.

Meanwhile, residents and others continued to call the neighborhood safe.

Angela Mendoza, who works at a new day-care center up the street, said the killings were "really sad," but did not worry her.

"It's a really, really nice neighborhood," she said, standing by the door of the center's small building Monday morning as children peered out from inside.

Her business, Happy Tots, which cares for kids up to age 5, has been on Devonshire Street since July.

But Mendoza said she's been in the area for years and has always felt safe.

Jeff Garg, who lives across the street, said he's seen few problems in more than 10 years in his house. Even an eyesore such as a junked car is rare in the neighborhood, he said.

"We've never seen anything like that before, but crime is everywhere," Garg said.

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