AT FIRST, WHEN CALLAGHAN OPENED HER STOREFRONT EMERGENCY CENTER, Las Familias del Pueblo, she oversaw the relocation of 400 newly arrived immigrant families out of Skid Row, an accomplishment that many city leaders believe helped prevent the creation of a new slum population. Callaghan mostly credits her loyal cadre of pro bono attorneys, who threatened legal action against hotel owners if they continued to rent to more than one person per room. In fact, her most potent weapon seems to be her prestigious army of volunteer lawyers and corporate executives --Ron L. Olson of Munger, Tolles & Olson, Robert E. Carlson of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, U.S. Circuit Court Judge Arthur Alarcon, Robert B. Egelston, chairman of the Capital Group--who are also on her board of directors. "All of us have been caught in Alice's web and never been released," Warren L. Ettinger of Hufstedler, Kaus & Ettinger says with much affection.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 15, 1991 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 7 Times Magazine Desk 2 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Savior of Skid Row" (Nov. 10), Alice Callaghan's role in the Prentice Hotel project was misstated. Chrysalis and the Los Angeles Community Design Center were the project developers. Callaghan helped provide seed money in the form of a predevelopment loan.
Part of Callaghan's strategy has meant getting the city attorney's office to enforce its laws prohibiting slum conditions. "Except for nonprofits, SRO owners--without exception--are slumlords," explains Nancy Mintie, director of the Inner-City Law Center downtown. "Their buildings are in a shocking state of disrepair." Just that day, Mintie had been dealing with a building so overrun with cockroaches that the bugs were crawling in children's ears and had to be surgically removed.
Stephanie Sautner, supervisor of the city attorney's Slum Housing Task Force uses the words of an old Jefferson Airplane song to explain her office's relationship with Callaghan. "Go ask Alice--that's our motto around here," she says, laughing.
Sautner, a former New York City police detective, first met Callaghan about six years ago, when she was responsible for a building on Skid Row at 6th and Towne. "We had a health inspector who was a problem," she recalls. "He's since been fired. He was found to be doing business with defendants owning property.
"At the time, the inspector reported repairs were made. Then I got a call from somebody named Alice Callaghan about this building. I said that building's been fixed. She said, 'No way. This building's a mess.' Then I got calls from Alice's lawyers. They said, 'This building is a mess.' I said, 'My inspector tells me otherwise. But I'll meet you out there.'
"I toured the building from top to bottom. I had seen a lot of slums in New York. I didn't really believe L.A. buildings were as bad as New York buildings until I went into the Simone Hotel. We got the building shut down; Alice paid to relocate all the families. Then, through my prosecution of the owner, I got her reimbursed."
It was a fateful first meeting. As the city attorney's office continued to condemn buildings in the area, they were so devalued Callaghan eventually could afford to buy and then renovate them. For years, however, Callaghan resisted getting into the housing business. But she saw that the more families she relocated, the more hotels were lost. Hotel owners, rather than spending money to bring their buildings into compliance with new earthquake safety codes, demolished them and put in parking lots. Between 1969 and 1986, about 2,300 units were destroyed.
The conflict between upscale developers and advocates for low-income housing escalated. By 1986, Callaghan and other service providers were growing increasingly concerned about the CRA's interest in promoting more commercial growth; it was backing off from its policy of saving and expanding Skid Row hotels. A 1976 Blue Ribbon Mayor's Committee report that became part of the downtown redevelopment plan called for the creation of a safe residential area on Skid Row. But CRA board members were siding with business interests, wanting to disperse the Skid Row population.
Convinced that the only way to save the housing was to make an end run around City Hall, Callaghan hooked up with Jill Halverson, then director of the Downtown Women's Center. Together, they lobbied Mayor Bradley to bring in outside consultants who might pressure the CRA to do more. Their gamble paid off. The result was a widely publicized 1987 report by a panel of the Urban Land Institute, a prestigious Washington, D.C.-based research organization, that favored preserving SROs and developing low-cost housing. The pressure was on.