Starting Over at Las Americas

Inside his studio apartment on Skid Row, Richard Surwillo, 56, proudly hoists a pack of chicken breasts from his new refrigerator – a seemingly simple act that demonstrates a profound gain for quality of life and environmental protection in Los Angeles.

Richard Surwillo, a Navy veteran living at Las Americas housing complex, says his new refrigerator is helping him eat healthier and save money.

A homeless housing complex near gritty Sixth and Alameda streets may seem an inauspicious incubator for sustainable living, yet the Las Americas Hotel is on the cutting edge of sustainable living. It started with a top-to-bottom overhaul to make the building more energy efficient, expanded to include new refrigerators, which in turn led to healthier shopping and food choices for residents, which led to cooking classes and transforming the courtyard to a community garden, featuring fresh herbs, citrus and vegetables.

“I could hardly fit a quart of milk in my old refrigerator,” Surwillo said. “Now I can store more food, so I can buy food in volume to save money, I have more food on hand and it’s better food so I can cook and eat healthier. And it’s newer, more efficient, so it uses less energy,” he said.

Theresa Hwang of the Skid Row Housing Trust said the trust spent $221,216 for insulation, a new hot water system, light bulbs, a boiler and improvements to the HVAC system – measures that reduce energy consumption and cool the 104-year-old brick building. The comes comes from the federal Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG), part of President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

Richard Surwillo proudly displays new tomatoes from the building’s community vegetable garden.

“The EECBG funds were the catalyst for greening this building,” Hwang said. “It’s the first building we’ve done these retrofits, so we see it as an example and pilot project for the other buildings,” she said.

In addition, funds from the L.A. Department of Water and Power paid for 58 new refrigerators as part of the upgrades. Volunteers from Ur-Bin help build the garden. Cooking classes have since sprouted, too.

Surwillo can appreciate the rebirth of the building, where formerly homeless people get a new start with a roof over their head. A former Navy man, Surwillo has lived in Las Americas eight years while overcoming alcoholism. His apartment is cooler, his food better and the garden is an oasis in an urban desert.

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