Sara Butler | Editor
“Hey, Jeff, how you doing man? How’s that roof holding up?”
As Noble Robinson greets his tenant at the gate, he seems less like a landlord and more like a friend. The two chat for a few minutes, catching up and checking in about a problem with a leak in Jeffrey’s roof that Robinson recently repaired.
We’re at Robinson’s property — and Jeffrey’s home — in Logan Heights, located on the outskirts of Downtown. After a long career in real estate, the South Park resident — who owns apartment complexes in Bankers Hill and Downtown — decided to use his expertise and experience in the market to give back to others, specifically veterans and homeless individuals.
Three years ago, he received a mass mailer about the “Housing Our Heroes” program, an initiative of the San Diego Housing Commission’s (SDHC) “Housing First” three-year Homelessness Action Plan. The program reaches out to landlords and works with them to create permanent housing opportunities for homeless veterans in San Diego, according to the SDHC website.
Motivated by his experience as a veteran serving in the Vietnam War — coupled with finding a property at “the right price at the right time” — Robinson and his wife decided to buy a building in Logan Heights and partner with SDHC.
“The main thing is getting these guys off the street and helping out in that aspect,” Robinson said, referring to his tenants. “I mean I didn’t do it for the money — pretty well set right now in this stage of my life — but it was the satisfaction of helping out and seeing the life change in these guys that we got in here.”
When Robinson initially took over the property, it needed more than a little work. It was a crumbling building with old walls, roofs and windows as “the slumlord that owned it before never did anything to it.”
“I had drug dealers in here. I had gang-bangers in here; five to six people in one little, small apartment,” he continued. “They were all just completely rundown: mold, mildew, old windows.”
Once he cleaned up the apartment, he brought in new tenants from the SDHC program, as well as other organizations like Father Joe’s Villages. Currently, eight veterans and two previously homeless civilians live in the building. Most of the guys (it is a male-only property) have called the residence home for more than a year.
“I’ve just seen a major change in all of their lives,” Robinson said, referring to the current and past tenants. “Of course when you get a roof over your head, that’s a major endeavor, for anybody.
“And that’s what’s really rewarding to me — to see these guys’ lives change for the better, to see how they contribute now, coming from a homeless situation, living under the bridge, living on sidewalks. That’s where these guys come from,” he continued.
One of these residents is John Watson, who has lived at the property going on three years. Watson is a veteran who said he has not ever drank or done drugs, and never believed he would end up homeless.
After growing up in San Bernardino, he worked in the printing trade until he received a draft notice for the Vietnam war. After serving, he moved to San Diego and returned back to his trade — but it has become computerized. So he started going to school and volunteering for Veterans Affairs (VA), which turned into a full-time job lasting 20 years.
But soon after he retired, his wife divorced him. Without a place to live, he moved in with a friend, Jerry, until he suddenly passed away from a coronary heart attack. The tragedy left Watson completely broke, since he had recently helped Jerry with a loan for a down payment on a Jeep.
“That was the decision that put me on the streets,” Watson said. “I’m not kicking myself so much for it, but I sure learned from it.”
That one decision left Watson homeless for two and a half years, with one week spent living on the streets. “I’ll tell ya’, sleeping on the sidewalk’s not fun,” he said.
Eventually Watson was accepted into the VA Supportive Housing Program (VASH). He added that although there were a lot of rentals available for people in the VASH program, he found it impossible to find housing — until Robinson.
“I tried to get into so many places … there were so many landlords that wouldn’t call me back, wouldn’t let me look at the apartment, or any of that stuff. It was sort of depressing. And Noble — he was like right there,” Watson said.
In addition to hitting it off with Robinson, Watson knew the physical space was exactly what he was looking for.
“I didn’t want anything too big — I wanted something that would be simpler for my needs, but it had all the things I want. I got a kitchen, it’s got a bedroom, and maybe the world’s smallest restroom, but that’s OK,” Watson said, laughing. “Everybody gets used to that.”
Currently, the complex has 10 one-bedroom units; five line each side of an outdoor corridor. Each unit includes a living room, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom, with renovations like windows and appliances, and laundry machines onsite.
At $1,300 per month, the rent, which is under market value, is high. However, the rent is tailored to tenants, who pay a different amount depending on their circumstances. Some receive 100 percent coverage from SDHC, while others contribute a smaller portion. Watson, who has social security, pays 30 percent of his income.
Last August, Noble received an award from Father Joe’s Villages for his work in the homeless community. In addition to fixing roofs and taking care of other issues that come up, Robinson connects with tenants one-on-one and helps them offsite, driving them to stores or doctor appointments, such as one tenant’s foot surgery next month at the VA — an injury he sustained when an army tank rolled over his foot in Iraq.
“I’d like to see some more landlords taking the steps Noble is,” Watson said. “There’s still a lot of homeless out there that don’t trust the system, that’d rather live in Balboa Park in a tent and that’s sad … There should be more opportunity for something that Noble has going.”
Robinson said Watson serves as the eyes and ears of the building as the voluntary apartment manager. In addition to developing a professional relationship, the two have formed a strong friendship over the years, with Robinson referring to him as a brother. They often cook together, trade recipes and go out to eat.
“And he won’t let me buy lunch! I really don’t like that. But not when we’re going to get sushi — I’ll let you buy every time then,” Watson said, smirking at Robinson.
And that friendship — and a passion for food — seems to be a common trend throughout the building.
“We’ve got great tenants here. We all get along — really good family situation here. And we’ll continue that way,” Robinson said, mentioning an increase in social events, such as their first annual Thanksgiving dinner last year.
As the interview wraps up, another resident, Stuart, comes out to join us. Stuart tells us he currently has stuffed bell peppers with all the fixings cooking in the oven, inviting Robinson and Watson to come try some. When I leave the residence, I can’t help but hear laughter and murmurs of future lunch plans drifting in the distance — lunch plans for a strong Logan Heights family.
For more information about SDHC and its Housing Our Heroes initiative, visit bit.ly/2tj7WBL.
—Reach Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.