Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Dead Houses not Halloweenie

If you had been to a West Coast Grateful Dead show, chances are you smiled as that man dressed in a bear costume with lights twirled past you!
You werent tripping-
That fellow is Rob Levitsky and he owns a bunch of houses known as the Dead Houses as each one is named for a Grateful Dead song.
You may check out pictures of the houses by following the links at-

EMBARCADERO: Grateful Dead fan provides student housing

Rob Levitsky's 10 houses have character and affordable rents
What glows in the dark and has footprints all over? The answer is Scarlet Fire, one of ten Palo Alto houses named after Grateful Dead songs and owned by Rob Levitsky. Home to seven Stanford students, Scarlet Fire can easily be spotted at night on Embarcadero Road.

The day-glow painted porch swing hangs beside an equally bright seahorse and butterfly, hanging metal sculptures made by Levitsky. Fluorescent painted footprints lead visitors to the front door from the porch steps. Inside, a student's large, single room is painted sky blue with white clouds floating near the top of the walls.

"Every house is certainly different," Levitsky said. "Several have porch swings because it is nice to sit outside."

Levitsky, who lives in one of his 10 houses, isn't your typical landlord. In fact, he doesn't even like to be called a landlord. Over the years, he's bought older homes on and near Embarcadero Road and rented them, primarily to Stanford students for relatively low rents.

A computer chip tester by day and "provider of housing" by night, Levitsky is an avid Grateful Dead fan who grew up in Palo Alto and graduated from U.C. Davis with a degree in electrical engineering. He wears tie-dye but also carries a cellular phone and an electronic datebook.

With some co-workers, Levitsky bought his first house, Terrapin, on Lincoln Avenue, 12 years ago and rented out rooms. "As my electronics business was successful, I put money into buying more houses. It started off as a hobby," he said. "It's not necessarily the best investment, but it's something I enjoy."

The houses were built at the turn of the century, and all have hardwood floors. Many garages have been converted into rooms, and all furnishings except beds are provided. Levitsky often makes home improvements himself, building decks and adding decorations. He makes sure that all houses have back yards as well as free Internet access and washing machines.

"It is the informal interaction with people that make this fun," Levitsky said. "During the school year, I get to know over 70 people and meet over 100 in the summer who come from all different countries. I like giving people a place to land."

"Living here is wonderful because Rob gives people the opportunity to live in a nice environment without spending a lot of money," said Tony Khalife, one of the few residents who is not a student. Khalife, a 32-year-old musician, lives in a converted garage in Dark Hollow, on Kingsley Avenue, where he also teaches guitar and drum lessons. "Rob is flexible with the money issue and really takes care of people."

Levitsky, 40, said he considers many of the residents his family. Because the houses are so close to campus, most residents are Stanford undergraduates who stay for an average of one year. "It's a pretty self-selecting crowd," Levitsky said. "If you expect servants to clean up for you and gardeners to garden for you, it's not the right thing for you." There are often 10 to 15 people in the living room eating dinner or watching television, and parties occur on a regular basis, he said.

"It's an issue I have to explain to (neighbors)," Levitsky said. "I like to support a lot of interaction between the houses, but if you're not responsible as a neighbor, the city has the power to do a lot of things to you." Levitsky advises students to leave parking space for the neighbors and to be quiet after 11 p.m.

"They were pretty quiet as students go," said Eric Hahn, who lived next door to Reckoning on Melville Avenue. "I guess we were pretty lucky," he said about the students' consideration in informing neighbors of planned parties.

The Hahns bought the Reckoning property in the spring. After the students moved out at the end of the school year, the Hahns applied for a demolition permit, which the City Council will consider Sept. 16.

"Every house in Palo Alto is at risk of being bulldozed," Levitsky said. "Everyday, something's going down. Developers see more money can be made by rebuilding."

Levitsky once paid developers $100,000 for a small home, which now houses four people, two doors down from Terrapin. He named the house Deal, after the Dead chorus "Don't you let that deal go down." "I spent my own money to save an old house, and it's beautiful," he said.

In addition to saving houses from the bulldozer, Levitsky, a guitar player, bought St. Michael's Art Cafe in 1993 when it was about to close because of poor sales. He ran it with co-owner Jenny Yule for 16 months before selling his share to Yule. Levitsky currently lives in Morning Dew on Waverley Street, but he makes daily rounds to the other nine houses, most with three-syllable names like Box of Rain and Shakedown Street, all within blocks of Embarcadero Road.

"Being on a busy street means you can be noisier. I absolutely must take the college lifestyle into account (when purchasing houses)," he said. "You can't have a college town without college students."

On his rounds, "I stop in and say 'hi' and check to see if anything's broken," Levitsky said. "I check the smoke detectors and make sure the recycling gets out. Safety is one thing I'm not laid back about."

At $380 to $400 per month, rent the so-called Dead houses is quite affordable for college students. "(My houses) are not market driven at all," Levitsky said. "(Rent) just evolved into what I think is a reasonable price--so long as I can cover mortgage, taxes and fire insurance. My goal is to break even someday." At Scarlet Fire, residents drop off their rent checks in an envelope taped to the front of the refrigerator.

"It's pretty much the mellowest, most laid back landlord-tenant agreement ever," said Rachel Barnett, a Stanford senior who lives in Scarlet Fire. "It's the only place off-campus where you're still going to get the Stanford atmosphere."

Although many people inquire about living at the Dead houses, to gain a spot, someone needs to have connections with the residents, he said. "Basically, random people don't get in," he said.

Levitsky said he operates on trust and does not request security or last month rent deposits. "The few times I have gotten burned were by random people."

As for the future, Levitsky said he has his hands full at the moment. But if he were to adopt another Dead house, Levitsky would have to like "the feel of it."

--Tracy Jan

And another article, if you like-

Hanging Tight
Stanford guru revives Grateful Dead spirit with eclectic housing
Bill Workman, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, November 7, 1998

(11-07) 04:00 PDT PALO ALTO -- Around Stanford University, Rob Levitsky is seen as an affordable-housing guru for those students who prefer to live off-campus in a hang-loose, communal- style setting.


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The bearded, guitar-playing Levitsky, 41, is the owner of what have become known as ``the Grateful Dead houses.''

They are a dozen turn-of-the- century bungalows and other residences in and around Embarcadero Road in one of Palo Alto's older neighborhoods, which he rents out almost exclusively to Stanford students at below-market rates.

Each of the Dead houses was named by Levitsky, a consulting computer-chip tester and devoted Deadhead, in honor of songs made popular by the rock band and its cult-like following.

Check out his list of song houses: Terrapin Station, Box of Rain, Dark Hollow, Scarlet Fire, Deal, Birdsong, Morning Dew, Touch of Gray, Built to Last, Shakedown Street, New Speedway Boogie, and Truckin'.

The names are painted on some houses in the cartoon-Gothic style of Dead graphics, hinting to neighbors and passers-by that life inside is likely to be different from the rest

of the neighborhood.

At $475 a month per student, they are also less expensive than what most small apartments go for in high-priced Palo Alto, and Levitsky does not insist on a security deposit and last month's rent.

The Dead houses, where tenants typically share communal meals and set their own rules, are modeled after Stanford's funky co- op houses, places like Enchanted Broccoli Forest, Synergy and Columbae, where Levitsky got the idea for naming his properties.

Levitsky never advertises a vacancy. Tenants usually have lived in one of the university co-ops before moving into a Dead house in their senior year, staying for a year or two before moving on and making way for a new arrival.

A native of Palo Alto, Levitsky began buying the houses in 1982, not just as an investment but for a mixed bag of reasons, not the least of which seem to include a crusade to save some of his hometown's older homes from the wrecker's ball.

``Every time Palo Alto has tried to enact some ordinance to save old houses, it's been toothless or just a delaying tactic,'' says Levitsky, who for a while also owned and operated St. Michael's Alley, a landmark Palo Alto coffeehouse. ``I realized a long time ago that if you want to save an old house, you pretty much have to buy it.''

Levitsky, who holds a degree from the University of California at Davis in electrical engineering, lives with a half-dozen students in Morning Dew, a rambling two-story shingled house on tree-lined Waverley Street, not far from Professorville, Palo Alto's historic residential district.

It was not a surprise to his friends that he decided to name his houses in homage to Dead music. After all, for more than a dozen years he was a popular figure at the Dead's Bay Area concerts. He roamed the aisles and stage as ``the dancing bear,'' twirling a multilight ball on a stick and dressed in a homemade costume of faux fur that displayed a colorfully lit version of the Dead's signature dancing bear.

Levitsky concedes that the psychedelic drugs that fueled the audiences enhanced his own appreciation of Dead music, but says that once he undertook his dancing bear routine, he had to turn down offerings from other Deadheads. ``When you were climbing around a stage and up stairs, you really had to focus,'' he says, laughing.

Although Dead concerts are no more since the band broke up after the death of Jerry Garcia, Levitsky still occasionally walks the streets of Palo Alto in the bear outfit, and wore it to the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert last summer.

Not everyone likes what Levitsky is doing with his properties. Several neighbors of two buildings on Lincoln Avenue and around the corner on Byron Street have complained that students leave trash from parties spilling over onto the sidewalk. They also say that there does not seem to be a regular schedule of maintenance for the houses.

``I'm not unsympathetic to co- op housing. I lived in a co-op when I went to UC Berkeley,'' says Lucinda Abbott, who lives with her husband across from Terrapin on Lincoln. ``There will always be a certain amount of tension between students and settled-down neighbors, but that can be mitigated by paying more attention to maintenance of the houses.''

Nonetheless, one of Levitsky's biggest fans is former Stanford president Donald Kennedy, with whom Levitsky shares sunrise runs in the hills above the Stanford campus.

``I think Rob is doing a terrific thing for Stanford students,'' says Kennedy. ``You can look far and wide in this community and not find the kind of below-market housing that he is providing them, and he really cares about young people.''

Kennedy recalled that the two men met several years ago when the university was planning to tear down two co-op houses damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Levitsky was among preservationists who persuaded Stanford to save one of the buildings, now known as Synergy house.

A throwback to the hippie era clad in sandals and tie-dye T-shirts, Levitsky enjoys the simple pleasures of hanging around with Stanford students, whom he periodically invites to go on weekend camping trips at a 65-acre site he owns in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Big Basin.

Although financially well-off, Levitsky, a former partner in Palo Alto startup Megatest before he became a consultant, eschews the upscale pursuits of many of his Silicon Valley contemporaries.

``If all of this went away,'' he says, waving a hand toward Morning Dew house, ``my lifestyle wouldn't change one bit, and I'd still be wearing my batik T-shirts and playing my guitar.''