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Cover Story : No Room to Grow : As Families Are Forced to Crowd Into Filthy Living Spaces, Health and Fire Officials Fear the Dangers of Close Quarters


It is a squalid place to raise a family.

For months, every time the upstairs neighbor flushed his toilet, water trickled through the rotted bathroom ceiling. Hot water for baths had to be heated on the kitchen stove recently after the gas was shut off.

This one-bedroom hovel in the heart of Long Beach is home to Irma Gutierrez, Tranquilino Mendoza and their family. The couple's three children sleep with Gutierrez or on bunks next to her bed. Mendoza and an uncle settle for couches in the living room.

The family, which relies on welfare and income from the parents' part-time jobs, would like a better place but can't afford it. So Gutierrez keeps the apartment as clean as possible, setting sticky traps to catch the cockroaches that scurry through the kitchen.

Such living conditions are all too common among poor families in Long Beach and other Southeast cities. Unable to afford better housing, many are cramming into garages and back-yard sheds without plumbing, motel rooms without heat and tiny apartments where rats are as common as kitchen silverware. Health officials warn that germs and disease thrive in crowded dwellings, while firefighters worry about other hazards, including loose wiring and gas leaks.

The problem is reaching unprecedented proportions partly because of the continuing influx of poor residents, many of them immigrants, to the area. Yet cash-strapped cities are hamstrung for solutions, lacking enough affordable housing to meet the demand and enough health inspectors to crack down on errant landlords.

"I don't anticipate dramatic changes in the plight of the low-income renter in the near future," said Dennis Rockway, senior counsel for the Legal Aid Foundation of Long Beach. Signs of the crowded conditions are abundant in poor neighborhoods and run-down pockets of many cities. Along alleys in west Long Beach, cables stretch from power poles to garage doors where someone has tapped into the electrical current. In South Gate, old cars line the narrow streets because garages are occupied. Fences in Lynwood are draped with laundry from residents living in garages and enclosed patios.

Health and building officials must deal with the squalor daily. A Long Beach health inspector recently visited a bug-infested apartment where a bucket was put in place of plumbing under the sink. Children slept a few feet away in the living room. At the next stop, a young woman told him a mouse dropped through planks in a cracked bathroom ceiling into a bathtub while she was bathing.

But one incident still defies belief. County building inspectors, working in Hawaiian Gardens a couple of years ago, discovered several people living in an apartment-complex pool that had been drained, boarded up and rented out by the building's tenants.

"It's one of those stories you come across that makes you say, 'Now I've seen it all,' " said Carl Holm, the city's director of community development. "They got them out of there as fast as possible."

Officials expect the crowding problem to get worse, as the number of poor families continues to grow in Long Beach and the Southeast. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people in area cities living below the poverty level jumped by 51,800, or 10.4%, the census shows. Nearly one of every four new residents in the area lives in poverty.

Some of the poorest, most crowded cities--including Lynwood, South Gate, Maywood and Bell Gardens--also lost housing during the decade, the census shows. Officials attribute the losses to redevelopment and the Century Freeway construction, among other things.

Government housing programs have been overwhelmed by the demand. In Long Beach, a waiting list for federal rent assistance already has 13,500 people, and city officials have stopped taking applications. Large families who hope to get financial help renting three- or four-bedroom apartments there can expect to wait up to five years, said Diane McNeel, manager of the city's Housing Services Bureau.

The problem is worse than the statistics show because large numbers of undocumented immigrants live in illegal dwellings such as garages, experts say. According to one recent study, based on interviews with local city officials and housing documents, the census missed nearly 258,000 people and nearly 2,000 illegal dwellings in the area. Census officials concede they undercounted residents and dwellings, but by a smaller margin.

The crowded, deplorable living conditions raise a number of safety concerns.

Fire officials say families in cramped quarters tend to overload electrical outlets, and that many run-down residences have exposed wires. Some families also use charcoal barbecues to keep warm, exposing themselves to deadly carbon monoxide gas.

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