October 22, 2018

Home, Interrupted

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

I recently recived a phone call from a former neighbor, someone who lived next door to me for many years while I rented an apartment. She called to tell me that she received an eviction notice after more than 20 years in the apartment.

She let me know that she was in the midst of experimental treatment for an aggressive form of cancer that had spread, and didn’t have the full amount for rent at the start of the month. A few weeks later, though, she sent the balance to the landlord. The property management company let her know they would not accept the late payment, and proceeded with the eviction process.

Unfortunately, her story is one of many playing out in areas where the cost of housing is high and the demand for housing outpaces the supply. Not only is the landlord certain to find a new tenant for her apartment, that tenant will pay a far higher rent than my former neighbor is paying. Local rent control laws prohibit landlords from raising the rent more than a few percent each year, but new tenants can be charged current market rates for new apartments.

As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, thousands of renters regularly face eviction, even if they aren’t behind on rent. Because property values have risen so rapidly in southern California, investors see affordable rentals as a great investment opportunity. Buyers either rebuild or remodel buildings in order to yield higher rents, or in some cases, sell as condos. The rents and prices of the new condos are out of reach for the vast majority of tenants evicted under these circumstances.

Some cities in California, like Los Angeles, have some form of rent control. The ordinance provides for relocation assistance for people living in buildings that are remodeled or razed, but for people living in cities not under a rent control ordinance, like those the Times described in their story, are mostly on their own. (There is currently a state law in California limiting cities’ abilities to pass rent control ordinances; a 2018 state ballot measure would make it easier for cities to pass or expand rent control laws.)

Finding an apartment or house to rent is particularly challenging for people who earn less than or the county’s median household income of nearly $59,000. The median measures the midpoint, so half of the population earns less than this amount. The median rent for the county in 2016 was $1,264, requiring an income of approximately $45,500 to be considered affordable (one-third or less of one’s net income). Because of the mismatch between wages and housing costs, Los Angeles was named the nation’s third least affordable city in 2014.

Renting a house is all but impossible for most earning the median or below. Back in 2014, LA Weekly reported that it took a household income of nearly $100,000 to afford to rent the median priced-home in the city.

As rents below the median gradually disappear, thousands of people find themselves looking for apartments, competing with more affluent residents who have been priced out of the home-purchasing market (in June 2018 the median purchase price was $609,000). The increased demand only serves to drive up housing costs.

This is not just a local problem. As Matthew Desmond powerfully illustrates in his book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, eviction isn’t simply the result of poverty or personal problems, but is also the cause of poverty. Finding new housing and moving requires money, time spent away from work, and disrupts a sense of stability. People often cannot afford to move all of their possessions, so they might find themselves having to start over to find furniture and even clothing. Pets might not be welcome in their new home. A new location might put them farther from work, or even too far to continue at their job and lead to a stretch of unemployment. Ironically, the most expensive housing markets are often in the most job-rich areas and people may have to choose between the two.

Yes, rentals are businesses, but they are also places people call home. The loss of one’s home can be traumatic, as the home is often a place where we feel a sense of sanctuary, celebrate milestones with friends and family, and make collective memories. In their book $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer detail the challenges that come with doubling up with friends and family when people lose their homes. They call for the creation of more affordable housing as central to fighting poverty in the U.S.

Home also connects us to people and other nearby places. Our neighbors may become friends, or even family to us. The places we buy our groceries and other necessary services include familiar faces that connect us to communities. In my former neighbor’s case, her network of doctors is nearby, and she is terrified that she won’t be able to find an apartment she can afford that will put her close enough to get her regular treatments.

If you have ever moved, and most of us have or will, consider the time and stress that comes with it—even if your move was by choice and something you looked forward to doing. What might be done to create more affordable housing for both low- and middle-income families in high cost cities?

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