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.
"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.