Neighbors band against multiplying group homes
on December 9, 2008
by MELANIE MASON
Three months ago, Kendall Moalem made a map. Moalem, it should be said, is not a city planner or a sociologist and definitely not a cartographer; her job as a policy analyst for UC Berkeley’s engineering department gave her little background in the disciplines of urban development and zoning laws. But Moalem had been noticing a proliferation of group homes in her Golden Gate neighborhood: homes for the elderly, for one, but also halfway houses for parolees and sober living homes for recovering addicts. And now she learned about another proposal: a new elder care facility, to be built on the corner of 61st and Market.
Moalem was curious: just how many of these homes were situated in her 94608 zip code? Using her neighborhood Yahoo group and the Google Maps tool, she plotted the location and capacity of residences that she or her neighbors knew of. It was an admittedly informal survey, but the clusters of blue pinpoints along San Pablo and Market made it abundantly clear: there were a lot of these homes in the neighborhood—almost 20, to their knowledge, in an area of less than one square mile.
“We were all rather shocked to see how many there were near our homes,” said Michael McColl, a fellow Golden Gate resident.
But while Moalem’s map is a modern way to track it, the group home proliferation it illustrates is a decades-old trend.
“This is a phenomenon of the early 1970s,” said Dr. Steven Segal, director of the Mental Health Research Group at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. As state hospitals closed, a new breed of consumers emerged: displaced mentally ill patients whose supplemental security income gave them funds to pay for private board and care. And the abundance of low-cost housing in the seventies meant single-home parcels in residential neighborhoods could be converted into profit-making boarding-homes: not only for those with mental illness, but also recovering drug and alcohol addicts and senior citizens in need of supervised caregiving.
Low-cost housing is harder to find these days, but in neighborhoods like Golden Gate, property is still cheap enough to attract these businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit. These businesses, in turn, are attracting clients with their offer of a homey alternative to larger institutions. For seniors who need supervised care, elder care homes tout the promise of a family-like setting in familiar neighborhoods. Sober living homes advertise supportive and substance-free environments for recently rehabilitated addicts. And for those with mental illness or disability, group homes can help with care and integration into the neighborhood.
But for the neighbors of these facilities, the benefit of the service provided can collide with the dynamic of the neighborhood. In cities like Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, neighbors of residential care facilities have complained to city officials that the facilities are causing disturbances in their community. And here in Golden Gate, neighbors say group homes can be disruptive and detrimental to the neighborhood.
Michael McColl says that on 62nd Street, where he lives, residents of one facility walk around “angry, disoriented and screaming.” He said he once saw residents picking up bits of concrete and throwing them at neighbors’ houses.
“There certainly appear to be some troubled people living in [these homes] that are causing major disturbances,” McColl said.
Neighbors also have complaints that may be less dramatic—increased traffic on the street, residents hanging around outside smoking cigarettes. But the net result, they say, is a change in a character of the neighborhood that they find troubling. They say they are fed up with having multiple group homes on a single block or receiving scant notice when a new project is built. And so when they learned of the proposed elder care home on 61st and Market, they finally had a target on which to focus their building frustration.
The house on 912 61st has sat unoccupied since June 2007, when Ramon Aoanan, an architect from Castro Valley, bought the property for $540,000. The one-story bungalow is itself unremarkable—squat and white, bordered out front by tall chain link fence. A flowering vine snakes up and over the frame of the entryway, providing a small burst of flair to the otherwise drab exterior. Out back is a spacious back yard, with a raised deck and lattice-work walls and a row of flowering shrubbery. It is back here where Aoanan, who also owns an elder care facility in Santa Rosa, plans to build a two-story, 1,391 square foot addition to the existing property, converting this single-family residence into an elder care home with capacity for ten residents, according to the current floor plan, plus two staffers.
Aoanan’s original proposal was for a 12-bed elder care home. But once informed of the project, neighbors in the area, Moalem among them, began to organize against it. They talked about it at neighborhood meetings and on email list-servs. They sent emails and petitions to Ann Clevenger, a city planner who was supervising the project. Between 15 and 20 neighbors showed up at a Design Review Board meeting in August, where Aoanan was presenting his plan, to vocalize their concerns.
Their list of complaints could be classified into two broad categories: quality of life for residents of the proposed home, and quality of life for those living near it. In the first category, neighbors questioned the lack of a wheelchair ramp at the front entrance of the building. They argued that the floor plan did not indicate sufficient space for walker- or wheelchair-bound residents to maneuver in hallways and bathrooms. They claimed a proposed patio was located too close to the street and could be dangerous for a patient who has dementia or is just simply disoriented.
As for their own quality of life concerns, neighbors said they worried that this type of home would increase traffic and noise levels as visitors and staff came and went. They said the proposal would change the character of the neighborhood, replacing green space and landscaping with a bulky, institutional-looking building.
The most pressing complaint, the one that encapsulated both concern for those inside the house and those nearby, was the matter of beds. For the neighbors, 12 beds was simply too many: an over-concentration of people in a small home and a too-large influx people into the neighborhood.
In Oakland, most development proposals must be approved by the Planning Commission before construction begins. The Design Review Board serves as a kind of gatekeeper for the Planning Commission; developers submit plans to the Board, which then decides if the project is ready to be considered by the larger Planning Commission. It often takes several stops before the Design Review Board before they give the okay to move forward. Often, they’ll make suggestions for structural changes or architectural modifications. Once they’re satisfied with the proposal, they’ll recommend it for consideration by the Planning Commission.
Aoanan has presented his proposal to the Design Review Board twice, once in August and once in November. At the first meeting, the Board agreed with the neighbors’ concerns about lack of green space and proper disability access. They also found that 12 beds would be too many; instead, they suggested a home with eight beds.
The November meeting had a less than auspicious start for Aoanan. Arriving almost an hour late and entering the meeting with a dramatic sigh, Aoanan presented a new plan with ten beds, 2 more than what was recommended, and little else by way of modifications to address the Board’s other concerns.
This, clearly, did not please the Board.
“I am more than concerned that the recommendations weren’t addressed in a significant way,” said C. Blake Huntsman, one of three Board members. Added fellow member Sandra Gálvez, “I don’t like having my time wasted.”
For Aoanan, the most pressing concern was the number of beds he would be allowed to have.
“Eight people would be financially unfeasible. I would be just providing a charity instead of a money-making endeavor,” said Aoanan at the meeting. He later said that if the Board sided with the neighbors and insisted on allowing only eight beds, he would sell the property.
Ed Manasse, a design review supervisor for North Oakland, said there has been a more vocal resistance to this project than what he’s seen for other proposals. “The neighbors have been very organized,” he said.
This organization reflects the growing frustration of Golden Gate residents that their neighborhood seems to have a disproportionately large number of group homes.
“There’s too high of a concentration,” said Connie Doolan, who lives on 59th St. “I don’t think it’s Oakland-wide. I’m sure it’s not happening in Rockridge.”
Jan Fougner, a real estate agent in Rockridge, said when queried about this that he could only think of one care facility in Rockridge—a larger institution on outskirts of the neighborhood. He’s sure such business operators would like to build there, he said—“you’ve got a transportation hub, you’ve got local businesses,” Fougner said—but he thinks an involved group of neighbors would likely doom any proposal.
“You’ve got a strong NIMBY contingent [in Rockridge],” Fougner said. As for the proliferation of group homes in Golden Gate, “My speculation is that [in Golden Gate] you don’t have neighborhood groups as organized against disruptions to the status quo.”
Golden Gate resident McColl agreed. “Maybe other neighborhoods have been more effective in terms of lobbying officials,” he said.
But Aoanan argues that his proposed facility would not be detrimental to the neighborhood; rather, he says, it would be beneficial.
“This is not a haphazardly whimsical thing,” Aoanan said. “There is regulation in place to provide good care.” He added, “The values of [nearby] properties may go up because it’s a well-maintained facility.”
According to Moalem, that has not been the case in her neighborhood. “My experience with elder care facilities is that the property becomes blighted,” she said.
City and state licensing procedures are supposed to keep a quality-check on the businesses. But maintaining the minimum standard of care that licensing dictates is hard to enforce, especially in light of staff cutbacks resulting from California’s massive deficit. “There is a real variation in the quality of these homes and of the people who run them,” U.C Berkeley’s Steven Segal said.
Enforcing the quality of group homes through licensing is as daunting a challenge as taking away drivers licenses to maintain a high standard of driving, Segal said. “Think of the variance of the quality of drivers on the road,” he said. “Now think about how hard it is to take a drivers license away.”
Aoanan’s facility, like other elder care homes, will need to be licensed by the state’s Community Care Licensing Division. From the city of Oakland, Aoanan will also need a Conditional Use Permit, which is required for all residential facilities (including elder care and drug rehabilitation homes) with seven or more beds. In order to receive a Conditional Use Permit, Aoanan and other proprietors of such facilities must prove their business is “compatible with the neighborhood” and that it complies with the city’s design standards. In order to prevent over-concentration of these facilities, homes with a Conditional Use Permit must be at separated by at least 300 feet from other Conditional Use Permit homes.
But other group homes are benefiting from a loophole in city law that allows facilities with six beds or less to operate without a Conditional Use Permit. These smaller group homes are not under the city’s supervision and do not appear on official city planning maps. They therefore render the 300 feet rule irrelevant: there may be two group homes with Conditional Use Permits that maintain the proper 300 feet separation, but within that 300 feet, there can be any number of smaller group homes. These are the type of group homes that tend to exist in lower-income neighborhoods such as Golden Gate. The owners of these low-capacity homes can only afford to operate when the property itself did not cost very much.
On Moalem’s street, the prevalence of these homes is particularly noticeable. “For me, [group homes] are literally at the third house over and the fifth house over,” she said. “Would [proponents] be thinking we are NIMBYs if this was the situation in their neighborhood?”
For now, the house on 912 61st Street sits in a kind of limbo, awaiting some sort of compromise between Aoanan, his neighbors and the city. But for the residents of Golden Gate, this project has had a galvanizing effect, a chance to speak out about the character of their neighborhood.
“The owner ought to be getting the message. We’re not going away,” Michael McColl said. “We live here.”
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