Most of Nestor Urcuyo's personal belongings fit neatly into a large plastic trash bag. That fact has served him well during the past five years, when he's moved more often than a raveling salesman on commission.
His current home is a cramped two-bedroom trailer that he shares with two other men in a trailer park nearly hidden from view along Balboa Boulevard in Van Nuys. While the dilapidated trailer has obviously seen better days, it still boasts some features that Urcuyo's neighbors covet. Indoor plumbing, for example.
But for all its shortcomings, the trailer marks a major step up from what Urcuyo has learned to accept since fleeing his native Nicaragua in 1987 to avoid the military draft. He has shared a one-bedroom apartment with as many as 10 people, slept on more floors than a defenseless prizefighter and, for one ignominious winter, paid more than $100 a month in rent to sleep in an unheated garage amid mounds of discarded aluminum cans and other trash.
Once pampered and protected in his homeland, Urcuyo now works long hours at a tedious job in a Chatsworth garment factory, taking home just $90 a week. That meager salary has left him dangerously close to homelessness, but his experience is not unique. Many of the recent immigrants who have flooded Southern California--whether to escape political persecution at home or simply in search of work--have been forced to accept living conditions far worse than those they left in their Third World homelands.
In San Diego's North County, for example, dayworkers have banded together to build "homes" from cardboard boxes in the hills above exclusive planned communities. In the San Fernando Valley, new arrivals are more likely to pool their meager resources to rent cheap apartments, cramming more than a half-dozen people into a one-bedroom unit.
"To us, seven or eight people in a room is unacceptable. But these people do whatever it takes," said Arnold Ross-Stalk, the former executive director of the L.A. Family Housing Corp. "It's tough, but it's always been tough.
"My grandparents came here from Poland and did real similar things. They doubled, tripled and quadrupled up in apartments. They pooled their resources. That's the same thing these people do. They support each other," said Ross-Stalk, who directs a Woodland Hills architectural firm specializing in low-cost housing.
Several studies have shown that overcrowded conditions--defined as more than one person per room per unit--have been rising rapidly since the early '80s. The problem has long been acute in rural areas such as Oxnard, Indio and the Central California valleys, which attract large numbers of migrant farm workers. But as immigration has swelled, the number of undocumented dayworkers congregating on urban street corners has grown as well, adding to the strain on available housing.
In San Fernando, for example, 52.2% of the city's rental units are overcrowded, the ninth-highest rate in the region and more than 10 times the national average of 4.9%.
Landlords are often powerless to stop overcrowding because the state's Uniform Housing Code, which is based on the number of square footage per unit per person, is extremely liberal. Several cities, responding to complaints from local activists, have challenged the law and attempted to write regulations of their own, only to be rebuffed. The city of Santa Ana, which says interpretations of the current code could allow as many as 10 residents in a one-bedroom apartment, last year proposed an ordinance that would have halved that number. The state responded by saying it does not have the authority to allow cities to adopt stricter local standards than the state's code.
But Ross-Stalk and others say overcrowding is the result of a lack of affordable housing, not the law. The median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the Valley is $582 and most building managers also require sizable deposits on top of that.
"We don't have enough housing, and the housing that's out there just costs too much," says Marc Brown, a staff attorney for the Sacramento-based Rural Legal Assistance Foundation. But there are few local alternatives. As Ross-Stalk notes, "the Valley does not have a shelter for single people."
Overcrowding seems to affect Latin American immigrants most. The sheer complexity of emigrating from Africa, Asia or Europe often requires a great deal of planning and saving, so new arrivals from those parts of the world either come with sufficient resources or can count on friends and family to provide immediate housing and other help. But for many Latinos, immigration can be as simple as walking across the border, so roommates are often chosen on the basis of a shared desperation and a common language rather than any real affinity.
That can lead to stressful relationships, which is one reason Urcuyo has moved seven times in the past three years.