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."
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