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Heidi Roberts lifts a table as she and John Betz setup two duplex housing units in south Los Angeles on March 06, 2018.

LOS ANGELES (TNS) — It started with a spreadsheet of income and expenses showing a modest profit could be made by housing homeless people.

The profit hasn’t materialized yet. But Heidi Roberts and John Betz, a couple from Los Angeles’ Venice neighborhood who decided to make their mom-and-pop rental business part of the solution to homelessness, have shown that they can get people off the streets while operating outside the government-run system.

In just a year, the couple has provided homes to 98 people, many of whom were placed by homeless services agencies across Los Angeles County.

Currently, 52 formerly homeless tenants live in three newly built properties that they bought in South L.A. Their enterprise grew out of Roberts’ experience as a longtime volunteer with homeless agencies. She saw firsthand case workers’ struggles to find housing for their clients.

“Ten years ago, John and I were jumping up and down saying, ‘Housing, housing, housing,’ and they just never seem to get housing done,” she told The Times the day they opened their first home last year. “So that’s why John and I said, ‘Screw it. Here’s housing.’ ”

New phase

Now Roberts and Betz, who live with their teenage son in a converted Gold’s Gym in Venice, are embarking on a new phase. They incorporated a nonprofit this year called Haaven, recruited business partners and investors and wrote up a plan to turn out 480 more beds within a year.

They see themselves as non-expert homeless activists and unabashedly predict that they will produce housing faster than what’s available through the conventional, nonprofit model — and at a fraction of the cost to the public.

Providing the housing will be the easy part, Roberts and Betz say. With their personal funds now tied up in the three properties, they’ve made new arrangements to lease homes from development companies that buy up aging single-family homes in South L.A. and replace them with large, family-oriented duplexes. The supply is plentiful.


The finances work because they will rent each bedroom in each five-bedroom duplex to two people, creating a dorm-like setting that has been frowned upon by mainstream homeless advocates, but makes market-rate housing affordable to those living on scant Social Security benefits or other income.

What Roberts and Betz have learned from a year’s experience is that having 20 to 30 people with physical and emotional issues living in close proximity is challenging.

Their answer — also a departure from conventional practice — is putting a no-nonsense house manager in charge. Currently that’s Rachel Estrada, who has no degree in social work but is trained as a peer specialist. She knows homelessness firsthand.