An unregulated, unlicensed group home in midtown Tucson has shut its doors — but the city’s chronic shortage of authorized, affordable housing for those needing mental health treatment means other unregulated homes will crop up.
In recent weeks, city and county officials descended on the home at Broadway and Craycroft, uncovering various problems during their inspections. Issues ranged from serious health concerns like a massive bed bug infestation to smaller infractions like needing to replace a fire extinguisher.
In early June, homeowner Sally Le said she was evicting the last two tenants so she could shut down the house and remodel it.
Several years ago, social service agencies like La Frontera referred some clients to boarding houses, including the five owned by Le.
“We have clients, and we have had clients historically — low-income clients with a mental illness — that may not need to be in a group home where treatment is provided and staff is provided,” said State Sen. David Bradley, the chief development officer for La Frontera.
Le says she never offered services for the mentally ill — and unless she did, federal Fair Housing laws could make it difficult to shut down a boarding house, Bradley said.
“Unless there is some evidence that the facility is providing treatment, then there is no state licensing law that would apply,” he said.
La Frontera no longer refers clients to boarding houses or pays to house people in them, said Dan Ranieri, the president and CEO of La Frontera.
But sometimes clients voluntarily sign over a portion of their Social Security check to pay for rent in a group-home setting.
The homes have mostly fallen out of favor with the expansion of Medicaid in Arizona. It has allowed some La Frontera clients to afford better living conditions, Ranieri said.
Police, TFD called in
When Le bought the house next door, neighbor Cindy Ramirez had high hopes that the home, which had fallen into disrepair, would be fixed up and a family would move in.
Instead, the home sat vacant. Eventually, a parade of strangers started flowing in and out of the house.
Two trailers were parked on the front lawn, along with a red sedan the Les would periodically pick up and move a few feet — presumably to make it appear it had been recently driven, Ramirez said.
Frustrated, Ramirez turned to City Councilman Steve Kozachik for help last month.
Soon, police and emergency personnel became a regular sight in front of the red-brick house.
In the first six months of the year, Tucson police and fire departments responded to calls to the home 38 times, records indicate.
Calls have ranged from minor health-related issues to police matters such as fights, disturbances, mental-health issues and general poor behavior.
“Obviously these calls are a drain on our first responders, but also disturb the quality of life of the surrounding neighbors,” TPD Capt. Michael Gillooly wrote in an email to Kozachik.
Curious about the influx of visitors next door, Ramirez began approaching cars dropping off people at the group asking how they learned about the home.
Their answers varied, but some said they were referred to the house by various social service agencies.
Bradley says his agency no longer refers people to the five homes operated by the Le family under the Blessing House Boarding name, but it did have a client living inside the home.
“The La Frontera worker has tried repeatedly to help him move, but he has so far declined the help,” Bradley said.
Ranieri said the patient has since been moved into another boarding home.
Inspections pile up
Over several weeks, inspectors have forced the Le family to make improvements.
The fire department found no working fire detectors in the home, and required a ventilation hood over the kitchen stove.
The Pima County Health Department was allowed into the house by an occupant, who told the inspector there was no management on-site at the time.
Staff observed a bed bug infestation and believed mosquitos were breeding in the house.
City code enforcers told the owners to fix a portion of the roof, remove nonworking vehicles and trailers and clean up debris around the house. They were also concerned about the pool, labeling its condition as “hazardous.”
It is unclear how many people were staying in the home, although one resident was sleeping on a couch before it caught fire, said Kozachik.
Failed attempt to help those less fortunate
Le said she had tried to help those with few alternatives to homelessness. But now she intends to remodel her homes and offer them to more traditional renters.
Fewer group homes is good news for neighbors who have similar complaints as Ramirez. But there is a downside, Ranieri said.
Some of his clients, ineligible for certain benefits, simply don’t have enough money and can’t earn enough to afford traditional housing.
With few alternatives other than these group homes in some circumstances, he said, the only other choice is to live on the streets.
Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at 573-4197 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @JoeFerguson