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No Qualifiers Yet : Offer Would Pair Homeless Singles, Vacant Houses

Times Staff Writer

A Woodland Hills real estate investment company is offering to let homeless people live free in its houses across Los Angeles County while they are being remodeled, but so far no one has moved in.

Argus Investments made the offer in a letter mailed to about a dozen social-service organizations in the San Fernando Valley early this month. The company would provide temporary shelter outside the Valley, use of a phone and $35 worth of food each week to single people willing to abide by a list of conditions including prohibitions against pets, children, alcohol, drugs and parties.

“I think Argus’ offer is tremendous, and I’d like to see more private industries become involved in something like this,” said Diane McNeel, director of the Los Angeles County Housing Authority. “It sure beats living on the street.”

The house sitters must agree to help show the homes, in various areas of Los Angeles County, to prospective buyers, said Kristy A. Montzney, Argus’ office manager. Once the houses are remodeled and sold, usually within three to six months, the sitters will be expected to move out, she said.

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Montzney said the company is eager to find occupants for the more than 20 homes it buys each year because it often is unable to get insurance or has to pay high premiums if they are left vacant, Montzney said. The company’s owner, David Hummel, decided the homeless would make ideal house sitters after reading about the more than 1,000 people in the Valley who live in their cars, she said.

Hummel, out of the country for the holidays, was unavailable for comment.

Wrong Applicant

But, by the end of this week, only one person had been referred to the company, and “he was exactly the type of individual we didn’t want,” Montzney said.

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“We are only interested in a person who is sincerely trying to pull himself up by the bootstraps,” the letter states.

Advocates for the homeless and government officials stressed that it would just be a matter of time before suitable occupants are found.

The main reason there have not been more referrals is that the homes the company had available this month were not in the Valley, and many local homeless people do not want to move out of the area, said Dorothy Scott, director of Better Valley Services, a private, nonprofit housing agency.

Argus contacted Valley organizations only because Hummel lives in Tarzana, Montzney said. But she said the company plans to extend the offer through social service organizations in other parts of Los Angeles.

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Singles Are Overlooked

“It’s a real vote of confidence for the community when people from the private sector come forward like this and offer to help,” Scott said. “Especially since single people are the most overlooked group of all the homeless.”

Scott said another possible reason the positions have not been filled is that homeless people “often value their autonomy and are wary of getting involved in a barter arrangement.”

The man Argus rejected was eager to have a roof over his head, said Charmaine Wilson, social service coordinator for Valley Shelter, a North Hollywood organization that houses 125 people a night. He took three buses to get to the interview at Argus, she said. But the man recently had been arrested in an incident after he yelled at church workers who had told him to come back the next day for a free meal, Wilson said.

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May Seek Others

The company instead chose a house sitter who happened to be employed as a security guard. If the company fails to find suitable homeless people as house sitters, Montzney said, it will seek others in the community to fill the role.

“I plan to continue to work with Argus, but if they’re playing games, I don’t want to waste my clients’ time,” Wilson said. “If they’re looking for white-collar, model citizens, they have to realize they won’t find them here.”

McNeel, of the county Housing Authority, predicted that Argus would soon find suitable homeless people. She said she has heard of no other company in the county that has made such an offer.

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In Denver, Caretakers of America, a private company with branches in the Midwest and in Texas, charges house sitters $230 a month to live in vacant homes, said its founder and chairman, Randy Bridge. Most are people who lost their jobs when the price of oil plummeted in the early 1980s, he said. Insurance rates drop by as much as $800 a month if a home is occupied, Bridge said.

The City of Portland, Ore., plans to start a pilot program next month similar to Argus’ proposal, said Jeanette Sander, coordinator of the city’s housing development programs. Homeless families will occupy vacant homes owned by the state until the properties are sold, she said.

Nothing comparable is planned for Los Angeles County, McNeel said.


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