Frustrated by a lack of housing for the homeless, Venice philanthropists Heidi Roberts and John Betz created their own solution
Story by Gary Walker | Photos by Ted Soqui
New Year’s Day was a busy time inside Chez Dre, a refurbished two-story duplex on Inskeep Avenue in South Los Angeles. Russ Ford, one of its newest tenants, spent the morning baking blueberry, chocolate cream and pumpkin pies while encouraging many of his 19 new housemates to enjoy a slice. Less than a month earlier, 72-year-old Ford was days away from joining Los Angeles County’s 52,000-plus homeless population — his greatest fear.
“The scariest time to be facing homelessness is during the holidays, and I thought that’s where I’d be. This has literally saved my life, because if I had become homeless I would have rather taken my life,” Ford said solemnly.
That sentiment runs like an electric current through Chez Dre and similar homes owned by Heidi Roberts and John Betz, a Venice couple who are doing what city officials have been unable to do for years: get people who are sleeping on the street into stable housing, and quickly.
Using their own money to fund dormitory-style living arrangements defined as “collaborative housing,” in which tenants share bedrooms with a roommate and divide responsibilities for common areas, Roberts and Betz have been able to house 79 formerly homeless people in just eight months.
That includes 63 current tenants at three large properties in South Los Angeles, each housing men and women separately, and 15 former tenants who’ve since relocated to other stable housing situations, such as moving in with family members. Only 11 tenants have washed out, typically due to anger or sobriety issues — drug use and physical altercations are not tolerated.
As residents of Venice lash out against each other and local government over a temporary homeless housing facility slotted for Main Street and public-nonprofit partnerships for local affordable housing construction, Roberts and Betz are quietly (and until recently, unexpectedly) moving further and further into the role of creating affordable housing for the homeless.
“I think the motivation came from years and years of seeing the same people rotting on the streets and getting worse, and hearing ‘We can’t do anything because we don’t have housing,’” Roberts said. “There was always an excuse, and that was very frustrating to me because I know there are solutions if you think creatively.”
Betz, a harbor pilot who guides ships through the Port of Los Angeles, and Roberts, an advertising strategist, previously raised money for efforts to address homelessness — particularly those of Regina Weller and her late husband the Rev. Steven Weller, who founded the LAPD’s Homeless Task Force and took it upon themselves to locate housing or shelter beds for hundreds of people they encountered on daily rounds along the Venice Boardwalk. For a time she volunteered for People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), but grew frustrated by limitations on the number and type of housing referral options available.
Roberts has also clashed with city and county leaders, whom she feels generally don’t move fast enough to address homelessness or consider a broader spectrum of strategies for affordable housing creation. At times she’s crossed swords with L.A. City Council Mike Bonin over his Venice Forward strategy to reduce homelessness, including filing a lawsuit (since settled) to prevent plans (since withdrawn) to secure homeless people’s belongings at the former Westminster Senior Center so they could enter emergency shelters.
“I thought she had a lot of passion. She was angry because solutions weren’t being implemented as quickly as she wanted, so I told her to just go do it yourself,” recalled Regina Weller, who met Roberts at city-sponsored homelessness strategy meetings and became an early mentor for Roberts before moving to Hawaii. “I give John and Heidi so much credit for what they’re doing to get people into housing.”
Roberts and Betz already owned several rental properties and have sold a few of them to fund their collaborative housing duplexes. They opened the first in June and named it Weller House “to memorialize what he had done for so many people,” Roberts said. Roberts named Casa John, which opened in November, after her husband and Chez Dre, which opened in December, after their son Andreas. The houses are tastefully decorated with new or like-new appliances and furnishings donated by Venice-area supporters, and each new tenant finds a handwritten welcome note waiting on their bed.
The couple has formed an umbrella company called Haaven Collaborative Housing and work with a housing nonprofit called SHARE to help manage the properties and identify tenants. A peer counselor assists tenants with social services, employment opportunities and the transition into collaborative housing — other affordable housing models offer individual rooms, which backers of collaborative housing say can be socially isolating and an inefficient use of limited resources.
Roberts or Betz meet with all prospective tenants, and Haaven (originally Haven, but with an added vowel to distinguish it from other operations) also takes tenant referrals from St. Joseph Center in Venice and other local homeless services agencies.
Roberts says Regina Weller’s support was crucial in the couple’s decision to pursue the collaborative housing model.
“She helped us get the courage to do this and she helped coach us a lot, especially in the beginning. She gave us a lot of great tips when we first started this, such as to look for some signs of willingness before we bring [tenants] in — have them do some small thing to show that they are willing to come off the street,” Roberts said.
“The best part of the collaborative housing model is the accountability we can put on the people here. People know you can’t break the rules, you can’t smoke pot, you can’t do drugs, you have to be a good citizen within the house — you have to be a participant,” elaborated SHARE board member Brian Ulf, a Venice resident who speaks from experience as a recovered alcoholic. “We are actively engaging people to turn their lives around.”
Part of that engagement strategy is that tenants aren’t simply given housing — they sign a lease and pay rent, between $500 and $700 per month.
Utilities, household furnishings, appliances, linens, computers, Wi-Fi, cable television and various household supplies are included. Tenants also have access to an office space, game room and a vegetable garden at each residence. Sources of tenant income include job salaries and Social Security benefits.
“The rent covers our maintenance costs and the mortgages, as well as all of the household necessities,” including the peer counselor’s salary, Roberts explained.
Roberts said she and Betz put nearly $3 million of their own savings into down payments and took out 30-year mortgages on each property. Knowing few other people are able or willing to take on such a large upfront investment, they are developing a more replicable model of leasing rather than buying properties in order to eliminate the start-up costs of a down payment on a mortgage.
Talks with two developers about options to lease buildings project the cost of providing additional collaborative housing as $6,300 to $8,200 per bed, including set-up and peer advocate services. Tenants’ monthly rent would cover the lease and ongoing household expenses.
That model presents a lower bar for entry and lower recurring costs than mainstream affordable housing models, much of them taxpayer funded. According to a Haaven House prospectus for expanding the collaborative housing model, “Bridge Housing” such as the temporary homeless housing facility planned for Main Street can cost $70,000 per person ($53,000 per bed, $17,000 for services), and traditional permanent supportive housing can cost more than $500,000 per bed plus services.
Betz and Roberts have been pushing city officials to include collaborative housing as part their overall strategy to address homelessness, pitching it as a cost-effective solution for clients who don’t need higher levels of mental health care or other social supports.
“When you look at this model from a financial standpoint, it’s much cheaper. But at the same time this model will probably only work for 30% of the homeless population, so that’s why there has to be many different approaches to the homeless crisis. The city has to look at the whole strata of homelessness, and others will require much more help and a different type of help,” Betz said.
Roberts says she has invited Bonin, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other officials to tour Haaven residences, but no one has taken her up on the offer.
“It’s become a challenge for us to show them that there are smarter ways to spend money where you could actually house people,” she said. “It was almost like a dare.”
Bonin did, however, specifically call on city administrators in 2017 to identify $50,000 in funding to collaborate with SHARE on a shared housing pilot program in Venice. “This type of housing model should be more fully included and funded in the city’s overall efforts to reduce homelessness,” Bonin’s council motion states.
A spokesman for Bonin said he’s been “the city’s strongest and staunchest advocate for shared housing — and for other quick and nimble solutions to homelessness,” lobbying other community leaders to support the concept.
Los Angeles County’s strategies to address homelessness do not officially include collaborative housing, but L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she’s willing to consider its merits.
“We need to explore every option possible to provide safe, stable and affordable homes to people experiencing housing instability. Shared housing is an important strategy to achieve that aim,” said Kuehl, whose district includes Venice and Santa Monica. “There is no magic bullet that will solve the housing crisis, but we have seen that combining tried-and-true strategies with demonstrated success and more creative emerging strategies can lead to more housing opportunities overall.”
Not every tenant adapts to collaborative housing. Personality clashes, mental health challenges, refusal to comply with house rules and what Roberts calls “anger issues” have forced her and Betz to move several tenants to different properties or to housing run by other agencies.
“It hasn’t happened often, but there have been a few situations where people have been asked to leave,” Betz said. “But we always try to move them to another home first because we don’t want to just kick people to the curb.”
On New Year’s Day, tenant Ariel Astrup, who has moved twice after conflicts with housemates, got into an argument with tenant Tillette McCoy, who has since moved out of state. Another Casa John tenant recently moved out temporarily to address a drug relapse.
“That’s where the peer counselors come in. They know that it can be difficult for some people,” Roberts said. “It’s not always easy, but that’s how life is for some of our tenants. I get a lot of joy out of seeing people doing well and turning their lives around. I don’t think this is the only solution, but right now it’s the best game in town.”
For Ford, the name Haaven says it all.
“That’s what I needed,” he remarked. “A safe haven.”
Keisha Vaughn, a 53-year-old transgender woman and survivor of childhood abuse, formerly used drugs and prostituted herself on Skid Row. Now she works at a drug counseling center and is celebrating four years of sobriety.
“I’d like to inspire other LGBTQ people and show the public that we are responsible, hardworking people. If I can do this then they can too,” said Vaughn, who grilled hamburgers and turkey burgers as designated chef for Casa John’s New Year’s Day backyard barbecue.
An early riser, Vaughn often leaves the duplex before 6 a.m., which is having a positive influence on others. “I look up to Keisha as an older sister,” Astrup said.
Ariel Astrup, 21, had slept in cars or on the streets since age 17, when her father died and her mother was unable to care for her. Like many of the women at Betz and Roberts’ homes, she’s struggled with drug abuse but has been clean since moving into Casa John last year.
Astrup had been in supportive housing but sought other options after being assaulted at a downtown Los Angeles bus stop. “After I met John and Heidi, I knew this was the place that I wanted to be. It really felt like a home,” she said. “It’s great that I was able to move into a place where I can relate to a lot of the people.”
She now works at Leaner Creamers, a Culver City-based manufacturer of nutrient-infused coffee creamers sourced from natural ingredients.
Casa John resident Tillette McCoy says she still struggles with anger about being estranged from her family in Las Vegas because of her gender identification, but feels like she’s found a new family at Casa John. “I’m with my sisters here. We’ve all come from a lot of hurt,” says McCoy, 50, who was raped at age 18. “I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
Russ Ford, 72, lived in Palms for 17 years before arriving at Chez Dre. Unable to find steady work after he was laid off from a Westchester-based nonprofit in 2008, Ford petitioned to receive Social Security at age 62, which reduced his monthly benefits by 30%. In 2017, a small rent increase put his rent-stabilized apartment out of the reach of his fixed income.
“I would have become homeless if I had waited any longer. I was at my wit’s end before I came here,” said Ford, who feared he wouldn’t last long on the streets because he’s previously faced threats and physical attacks because he is gay.
Collaborative housing is “a relatively new experience, because I’ve only shared a bedroom when I was a freshman in college,” he said. But, “I feel so blessed that this has happened to me. It’s about the biggest miracle of my whole life.”
Like Vaughn and McCoy, Michelle Rodier identifies as a transgender woman. She says living at Casa John helps her work through anxiety disorders. “It gives me support that I wouldn’t have in another housing model. It’s like living in a dorm,” said Rodier, who volunteers at an animal shelter. “We’ve had some drama, but now I think we have a good crop of people.”
Tiffany Buckley, 26, arrived at Chez Dre in November. A victim of domestic violence, she lost a baby last year after her ex-boyfriend beat her up. “It was a horrific situation — physically, emotionally and psychologically,” recalled Buckley, who nonetheless maintains an optimistic outlook and bubbly personality.
“I adapt to change very well, and I persevere. To be honest, I spent almost all of my childhood in foster care, so I have a high ability to be able to adapt very well,” said Buckley, who works as a peer mentor for at-risk children. She hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree so she can become an early childhood education advocate for traumatized children.
At Chez Dre, “if you’re going through something, it’s probably something that everyone has experienced to some extent. Most of the time everyone just wants to support each other, especially during a crisis,” she says. “This is a stepping stone to gaining my independence back. Now that I know I have a safe haven, the future looks bright — shining bright like a diamond.”