City Officials Find a Man Who Has Housing Plan : New Tactic Seeks to Upgrade Skid Row

Times Staff Writer

Andy Raubeson, an ex-cop from the Pacific Northwest, looks out of place in Los Angeles City Hall with his wild gray beard and rumpled coats. But his style doesn't matter to the city officials who last year wooed Raubeson here from Portland, where he was a well-regarded public servant.

They needed help with the city's expanding Skid Row, which is smothering 20-year-old plans to finish renewal of downtown Los Angeles. After looking around the country, they decided Raubeson was their man.

Raubeson is perhaps the best-known advocate of a new tactic gaining popularity in American cities as a way to restore old downtowns and, at the same time, provide decent, inexpensive housing for the rising homeless population.

He salvages "single-room occupancy" hotels, the often seedy establishments typically found in Skid Row areas whose dwindling numbers and declining quality are considered a major factor in the nationwide surge in the number of homeless people.

Railroad Workers' Housing

Originally built as cheap housing for railroad workers and other turn-of-the-century transients, the small, barren rooms--80 to 100 square feet is not uncommon--now serve as the lowest level of housing for the very poor in many cities.

But more than 1 million rooms have been torn down around the nation in recent years, federal officials say, either because they had become too decrepit or to make room for office buildings and new hotels. Hundreds of thousands of other units have deteriorated from age, overuse and neglect.

Because new housing affordable to the very poor is too expensive to build, efforts to stop the demolitions and upgrade the hotels have been started in San Francisco's Chinatown, New York, Boston and Seattle, and on a smaller scale in Sacramento and Eureka.

Raubeson, 48, made his reputation in Portland's run-down Burnside section. Six years ago, he used $5 from his pocket and his friendship with the mayor and county chief executive to launch a social service agency called the Burnside Consortium.

The agency purchased one hotel and leased four others, converting a total of 418 rooms from derelict status into clean, safe housing at rents below $160 a month. The Burnside Consortium became a model that attracted nationwide attention, and Raubeson, a veteran official of city poverty programs, became a popular speaker at seminars and conferences on problems of the homeless.

A city pledge of $9.6 million in backing helped convince him to move to Los Angeles, which has 15,000 remaining single-room occupancy units downtown. About 6,000 rooms are in the Skid Row area, most so neglected by their owners and so rancid with vermin and filth that recent surveys of the street homeless found many people who prefer the alleys to the hotels.

Raubeson has set an ambitious goal for himself here that, if reached, will make Skid Row a much different place.

He brashly says he can take the worst area of Skid Row, a section known as Thieves Corner, and operate clean, safe hotels there that will break even with rents low enough that some homeless welfare recipients could qualify. The well-run hotels would form a community that would let even the elderly and handicapped poor feel comfortable, he said.

Goal Established

"I want to do 6,000 units before I'm through," Raubeson said. "People think it's impossible. But it can be done."

In its first year, Raubeson's operation has purchased three hotels in the heart of Skid Row--the Florence, the Panama and the Russ--for a total of 600 units. He plans to buy several more this year.

His office is downtown on Spring Street under the banner of the nonprofit Single Room Occupancy Housing Corp., which the city Community Redevelopment Agency formed with Raubeson as executive director and a six-member board of directors. The agency put up the $9.6 million for the corporation to use to finance hotel purchases and renovation.

Redevelopment officials consider the investment wise because they want Raubeson to clear the way for the final stages of a two-decades-old strategy for redeveloping downtown. The plans have been stalled by the growing homeless problem on Skid Row.

Now that the old Bunker Hill area, once a run-down neighborhood, has been redeveloped into a thriving high-rise center, the plans call for upgrading Spring and Main streets with a state government building and other offices.

Sharing With Skid Row

The strategy assumed that big business would always share downtown Los Angeles with a Skid Row section. Some downtown business leaders had wanted to bulldoze the vast blocks of run-down hotels and buildings, but a heated debate more than 10 years ago led to a consensus that the problem had to be dealt with more carefully.

"It was just impractical to think Skid Row would disappear," said Christopher Stewart, president of the Central City Assn. and a member of the redevelopment agency board.

But officials also assumed that Skid Row could be contained and moved several blocks south and east, away from Main and Spring streets, which are designated as havens for middle-class office workers.

Instead, as the numbers of homeless and poor in Los Angeles have grown, the unofficial markers of Skid Row--panhandlers and people sleeping on sidewalks--have penetrated farther into the main business area.

Conditions Deteriorating

In the last decade, the nature of Skid Row also has grown tougher.

"I'm amazed there haven't been riots," said Gary Blasi, a Legal Aid Foundation attorney who helped win several suits over hotel conditions on Skid Row. "It's the most concentrated ghetto we have. There's a lot of young people out there who were trained in Vietnam."

The Union Rescue Mission, the city's oldest, is resisting pressure from redevelopment officials to move from its current location near City Hall to the heart of Skid Row because of fears that clients in the mission's rehabilitation program would suffer.

So redevelopment officials turned to Raubeson and charged him with providing decent housing and making Skid Row a less threatening place.

The Florence Hotel, Raubeson's first purchase, cost $375,000. "There hasn't been heat in that hotel at least since February of 1966," Raubeson said. "The valves are all frozen shut. Tenants told us there wasn't any running water for the last 2 1/2 weeks."

Undergoing Renovation

Twenty-six tenants were moved temporarily to other hotels, and the Florence's 60 rooms are being renovated into the flagship of his operation at a cost of nearly $1 million, Raubeson said.

It is scheduled to reopen next fall with heat and running water, a new look on the outside and a new style of management, he said. Monthly rent will be $160 to $185 for singles, $235 for couples.

Each room will have a new bed, small refrigerator and a closet. New plumbing and electrical lines will be installed on the outside of the inner walls to save money. To discourage thefts and assaults, the front door will remain locked except to tenants. A market that sold liquor on the first floor has been evicted.

Raubeson said his experience in Portland taught him certain rules about running these hotels. The manager will live on the premises and interview the prospective tenants before they are approved and will keep close tabs on their activities. Those who are mentally ill will be put in touch with the appropriate services. Unruly or drunken tenants will be evicted.

A maintenance crew will be hired to keep up the facilities that Raubeson runs and will provide contract maintenance to other hotels in the area, most of which are cleaned only rarely.

Gaining Good Reputation

Pretty soon, Raubeson said, the Florence and its sister hotels will get a reputation as the best places on Skid Row. They will be close together and will come to form a small community that will humanize Skid Row, he said.

"We're not going to have fortresses," he said. "We're going to care what's happening on the streets. We're going to try to influence the way the Los Angeles Police Department patrols our streets . . . and the way the Department of Public Works takes care of the streets."

For Raubeson, who grew up in a Connecticut orphanage and worked as a Tacoma police officer while attending the University of Puget Sound, housing the homeless is a personal cause. He has a mildly retarded relative living in Portland's Rich Hotel, which Raubeson helped convert into a clean hostel-type setting where the residents often leave their room doors open and share a communal kitchen.

"I see my work as terribly important," Raubeson said. "It just seems so obvious. If you keep converting low-income housing in your core area, you're going to have a whole lot of people de-housed. If somebody doesn't do this, where in the hell are you going to be?"

Which Hotels to Choose?

The only criticism so far has been the choice of hotels to take over. Skid Row activists would like to see him buy and clean up the worst hotels, where the owners spend little money on maintenance.

Instead, the Russ and the Panama, which he bought for $4 million early this year, had a reputation as two of the better Skid Row hotels. They were kept in good enough shape by the previous owner that they have remained open and will be renovated--at an estimated cost of $1.6 million--as time allows, Raubeson said. Negotiations also are under way to put a small medical clinic in the Russ Hotel, he said.

They were acquired, officials said, because of their location near the Florence and because redevelopment officials already had begun the purchasing process when Raubeson arrived.

The high costs are what prevent private developers from entering the single-room occupancy hotel market, experts say.

Break-Even Point

Friendly financing by the city will let Raubeson break even, despite rents at the Russ and the Panama of $185 month for most tenants. Some longtime residents--including an old man who has lived there for more than 40 years--will pay lower rent as part of the purchase agreement.

The Community Redevelopment Agency is providing interest-free backing for the first five years, with 3% interest over 25 years after that.

The financial support is far sweeter than in Portland, where making ends meet was a constant struggle.

In his year here, Raubeson has come to be regarded as something of a homeless guru in City Hall. He shows up at meetings wearing a button that says "House the Homeless," but his non-traditional style has not stopped him from serving as an unofficial adviser to Mayor Tom Bradley since the homeless issue heated up here three months ago.

"I like to influence public policy," Raubeson said.

Raubeson also has become a protege of James Wood, chairman of the Community Redevelopment Agency and a labor leader who is a close Bradley political adviser.

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