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Immigration Swells 7 Cities; Severe Strain Felt in Housing

November 16, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A steady wave of Latino immigration during this decade has resulted in severe overcrowding and poverty in a seven-city area of Southeast Los Angeles County, city and county officials say.

Tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them undocumented, have streamed into the cities of Maywood, Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Cudahy, South Gate and Lynwood in search of better economic and living conditions or a haven from civil strife.

"The area has become sort of a mecca" for Latino immigrants, said David Lopez-Lee, a USC professor who has conducted surveys that show more than 50% of residents in the area speak little or no English. "Of course, it has created a whole host of problems."

Consider that the seven Southeast cities together total 22.5 square miles, the size of Pasadena. But they have a combined population equal to that of a 65-square-mile area encompassing Pasadena, Glendale, La Canada Flintridge and San Marino.

Maywood, the most densely populated city in the county, has four times more people per square mile than Beverly Hills or the city of Los Angeles, said Terry C. Bills of the county population research section who attributes the high density to immigration.

The other Southeast cities follow close behind, ranking among the county's 15 most densely populated cities, Bills said.

As might be expected, demographic experts and city and county officials say the wave of immigration has put immense pressure on the area's social structure and left both immigrants and long-time residents struggling with the problems.

Public school classrooms are overcrowded, available housing is almost non-existent, crime is up, social service workers are inundated with pleas for assistance and the aging infrastructure--the sewers, streets and electrical systems--are being overtaxed, officials say.

The seven cities, once quiet suburbs inhabited largely by Anglos from the Midwest, are bustling centers of Latino life. With the influx of recently arrived immigrants from Mexico and Central America, Latinos account for an estimated 90% of the cities' population.

One of the most worrisome effects of the wave of immigration is the resultant shortage of housing.

"The housing crisis is here," said Joseph Carreras, a housing expert with the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "There is just not enough decent, affordable housing to meet the tremendous need."

Because of that lack of housing, many Latino families share living quarters.

Apartments built in the back yards of many small homes over the years by property owners looking for extra income are filled, sometimes to overflowing. So are the long apartment complexes that are lined up barracks-style along narrow streets.

"It's greed," said Bell Gardens building inspector Carlos Levario about a trend by some absentee landlords to rent to several families. "(Landlords) are out to abuse people. They prey on them (the immigrants) all the time."

Several landlords said, however, that they are often frustrated because families share apartments meant for one family without landlords' permission.

The "double bunking" is not only a sign that affordable housing is often unavailable, but it also points to the fact that an overwhelming number of immigrants are living well below the poverty level, some experts say.

Statistics show that per capita income in each of the seven cities is among the lowest in the county. Cudahy had the lowest per capita income, estimated at $4,831, in Los Angeles County in 1985, the last year these estimates were prepared. South Gate's estimated per capita income of $7,070 was the highest of the seven cities. These figures are significantly lower than the county average of $11,842.

A recent UCLA study found that the overall poverty rate is rising for Latino families throughout Los Angeles County. About 25.2% of Latino families in 1987 lived below the poverty level (earning less than $11,600 per year for a family of four). That figure is up from 16.6% in 1969.

The study came on the heels of a report by Chicago-based urbanologist Pierre DeVise, who said Cudahy, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park are among the poorest communities in the country.

Educators in the Los Angeles, Montebello and Lynwood school districts say that despite schedule changes and ambitious building programs the local classrooms continue to mirror the overcrowded conditions of the neighborhoods.

Hundreds of Los Angeles Unified School District pupils are bused out of the area each school day to attend less-crowded schools in other parts of the district.

The increase in density in Southeast cities has been accompanied by an increase in crime--as much as 50% in the last year, law enforcement officials say. Much of it is the result of an increase in gang-related activity, especially among teen-agers.

Social service agencies, both public and private, are also under pressure and have seen their workload with Latino immigrants increase by as much as 52% since the 1980 U.S. Census.

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