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Column: Shoemaker, 71, wants to move out of his van, but even a waiting list is out of reach

Rafael Lopez runs a shoe-repair business out of one van and lives in another.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

My wife’s shoes didn’t look salvageable. But Rafael Lopez said he could stitch them, no problem, and give them an honest shine.

Lopez operates a shoe repair shop out of a 23-year-old Chevy van, lives in a 20-year-old GMC van, and is a man of his word. The shoes have a new life.

Meanwhile Lopez is living the same life I wrote about in March, when I stumbled upon his operation in Echo Park. Business is good, he said, but the going price for a small apartment is still way out of his range.

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“Come here,” he said Tuesday morning, calling me over to the GMC Safari to take a look inside what has been his home for the last three years.

A mattress lies on the floor of the van, and Lopez has fastened a small TV screen to the ceiling. It’s angled so he can watch while snuggled under the covers. He gave me a big smile, proud to show off this one little luxury he’s created for himself.

Lopez, 71, didn’t know much about the latest promises from local officials to build more affordable housing, nor did he know the chances of those promises being kept. He lives in a different reality — one in which you assume no one will come to the rescue.

He hasn’t given up all hope. He said he got a tip that a guy may be vacating a nearby apartment soon and would be willing to slip him the keys.

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He didn’t know what the place rents for or whether it was something he could handle.

“I can pay maybe $600 or $650 a month,” he said.

Lopez is but one among tens of thousands of Los Angeles County residents who are either homeless or jammed into substandard quarters in the capital of high real estate prices and a minimum-wage economy.

So when the county passed a plan Tuesday to spend $20 million on new housing next year, followed by $40 million the year after that, all the way up to $100 million in the fifth year, it stirred hope — despite the absence of some key details. Such as where the money will come from.

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“It’s not a pipe dream,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl told me Monday evening.

Supervisor Don Knabe, who is worried about the county’s ability to come up with the money, pitched a more conservative plan that will also be studied.

But Kuehl believes the county can find the money to cover at least the first two years of the initiative she and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas introduced, which could include rental subsidies for people barely hanging on to their homes.

Not to be outdone, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti has been throwing around big numbers of his own, first promising to spend $100 million on homeless services, and then promising an additional $100 million for supportive housing.

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Garcetti said his affordable housing plan would be funded by fees on developers. But that’s never an easy sell.

And no matter whose plan prevails, the city and county will be stuck with a host of additional questions:

Where are they going to put this housing?

How will they get past the expected neighborhood opposition to poor people moving in next door, including in some cases formerly homeless people with mental illness or addiction issues?

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And where will they get the money for rehabilitative services?

Might I suggest that a little coordination among various $100-million proponents — along with input from nonprofit housing and service providers — could go a long way toward answering the challenge?

And while we’re at it, let’s bring former state Sen. Darrell Steinberg into the discussion. He’s pitching a $2-billion housing bond, financed in part with existing money from the Mental Health Services Act. Put all of this cash together, spend it smartly, and the impact could be huge.

As evidence of the need, let’s revisit Rafael Lopez. The shoemaker heard that the Menorah Housing Foundation was taking applications for a waiting list at its Menorah Terrace apartments in West Hollywood. He eagerly applied.

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The nonprofit has 18 buildings in Greater Los Angeles, and its residents, all low-income senior citizens, pay $220 to $240 monthly, on average, for the federally subsidized units. That would be a great deal for Lopez, and he wanted to get in line for a set of keys to his own place.

Menorah is housing 1,221 people, and 3,115 more are on waiting lists. Menorah Terrace had 23 people on its list. The foundation decided to add 200 more, and Lopez was one of 638 people who applied for those additional waiting list slots.

But in Menorah’s blind lottery, his number didn’t come up. He handed me the letter from Menorah. “Unfortunately,” it said, “you will not be added to the … waiting list.”

Anne Friedrich, Menorah’s executive director, told me there’s a waiting list for every one of the nonprofit’s 18 apartment buildings, and demand is particularly high because of a sharp decrease in federal money for new housing.

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The average wait once on the list?

Three to 10 years, depending on various factors.

The longest wait?

About 14 years. If he were to get on the list and wait that long, Lopez would be 85.

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Another lottery, for another building, will be coming up soon, Friedrich said.

Until then, Lopez will go on working in one van and sleeping in another, waiting, still, to make it to the waiting list.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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Hoy: Léa esta historia en español

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