Renters Priced out of LA

Wednesday, April 9, 2008
David Lazarus
Los Angeles Times

Deanna Corbin, 46, would live in Los Angeles if she could. But she can't, at least not with a modicum of space and safety, not on her $38,000 salary as an administrative secretary.

So Corbin gets up at 4 a.m. every day and hustles her 11-year-old daughter out the door by 5 for the two-hour drive from their apartment in Lancaster to downtown L.A.

Most days, they don't return home until 8 p.m., when Corbin tries to devote some time to her daughter's homework before they both collapse into bed. It all begins again at 4 the next morning.

This is the harsh reality for thousands of working-class people priced out of one of the priciest cities in the world. From housing and food to energy and entertainment, Los Angeles is increasingly out of reach for those living paycheck to paycheck.

"It's a crisis," said Gil Duran, a spokesman for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "We have to have a city of mixed incomes with affordable housing for workers."

Easier said than done. But planning and public-policy experts say steps can be taken to protect the city's social and economic diversity. It's just a question of priorities.

Any discussion of getting priced out of L.A. has to begin with housing, by far the biggest expense for most people. Never mind buying. Even with the real estate market on the ropes, buying a house or condo remains a fantasy for the majority of Southern Californians.

The real story here is rentals. About 60% of L.A. residents are renters, according to the National Multi Housing Council, an industry group. That compares with a nationwide average of 32%.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development says families shouldn't spend more than 30% of their annual income on housing. But here, many people pay up to 50% of their income for an apartment.

Runaway housing costs, in turn, tend to push wages higher, which can cause the price of just about everything else to climb as businesses seek to recoup their expenses.

One reason housing prices are so high is a requirement that newly built multiunit dwellings (and condo conversions) provide at least one -- usually two or three -- parking space per unit. This inflates the cost of each apartment and discourages construction of smaller, more affordable units because developers would be required to provide even more parking.

"The fixation on parking in Los Angeles has driven up the price of housing and increased congestion on our streets," said Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. He said including two spaces with a unit can add about $45,000 to construction costs.

One solution would be to waive the parking requirement for smaller apartments, thus creating an incentive for developers to place more such units on the market. And because there'd be no parking cost built into the rent, such units would (in theory) be cheaper than apartments that come with extra room for vehicles.

This could have the added benefit of increasing demand for public transportation -- presuming, that is, people would trade car ownership for reduced rent. Increased demand would hopefully spur development of commuter-friendly projects like a long-delayed Westside subway line.

But Gail Goldberg, L.A.'s planning director, said any proposal that includes cutbacks in parking tends to go nowhere. "People feel like there's already not enough parking and that people are intruding into their neighborhood. This is a difficult discussion to have."

Meanwhile, a coalition of community, religious and business interests called Housing L.A. is pushing City Hall to require developers to include affordable housing in new projects and to slow the conversion of rental units into condos.

These are worthwhile goals, but they're strongly opposed by deep-pocketed developers and real estate firms. So good luck with that.

A more politically practical remedy may be to ease zoning requirements for mixed-use properties, thus allowing creation of urban villages featuring retail outlets at street level and moderately priced living spaces overhead.

This is already happening to some extent above a handful of subway stations, such as the Wilshire Vermont Station project in Koreatown. But creation of dynamic transit villages throughout L.A. remains a distant prospect at best.

Instead, we're forced to settle for tacky strip malls and soulless commercial zones. You get in and you get out. There's little incentive to stroll the neighborhood or just hang out.

Large swaths of Santa Monica, Pico and La Cienega boulevards come to mind for their character-free approach to neighborhood ambience.

"We've emphasized separation of land use," said Raphael Bostic, a professor of urban planning and real estate at USC. "We keep residential with residential and commercial with commercial. It's very hard to get both on the same parcel."

One place that's changing is downtown, where renovations of once-moribund buildings are bringing in new residents, resulting in more of an East Coast atmosphere where commercial and residential properties co-exist side by side.

The trade-off for increased housing stock, though, is higher density, and that won't win you many friends among neighborhood activists or at City Hall. Adding more people per city block can be a tough sell in a city that seems overcrowded to begin with.

"Density is like a four-letter word these days, and that's a real challenge," Bostic said.

The upshot is that more and more people are being pushed farther from their jobs, farther from the city they'd like to call home.

That's what happened to Corbin, who moved from Torrance to Lancaster after a 2005 divorce.

"I looked for a place in Los Angeles," she said. "But there was nothing affordable in a decent area for a single mother with two daughters.

"My choice was either a drug-riddled, gang-infested neighborhood or a place so small I couldn't even get my furniture in."

Corbin pays $975 monthly for a two-bedroom apartment more than 70 miles from where she works. Her younger daughter attends school in L.A. so that Corbin can get to her quickly if something goes wrong. Her older daughter is 18 and stays most days with friends in Torrance while attending a community college.

Corbin isn't sure what awaits her older child once she graduates. She only knows that she doesn't want her daughter to have to spend four hours commuting every day like she does.

"I'm telling her that she has to stay in school and get an education," Corbin said. "That's going to dictate where she lives. It's going to dictate how she lives."

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