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Housing Gap for Poor Is Widest in Southland


In a time of economic growth, more Americans than ever are too poor to find rental housing they can afford and, by most measures, the problem is most acute in Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.

According to a study released Monday by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the nation's widest gap in affordable housing is in Southern California, where there are four times more low-income renters than there are low-cost units for them to rent.

The gap here between needy renters and affordable units is twice the national average of 2 to 1.

Los Angeles County and the Santa Ana-Anaheim metropolitan area also have the highest proportion of low-income tenants living in overcrowded conditions and are among urban areas with the lowest proportion of poor residents receiving government housing aid.

The region shares with metropolitan areas in Northern California the distinction of having the largest percentage of poor tenants who spend the vast majority of their income on shelter, the study found.

"It confirms what we know," said Jan Breidenbach, director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, a trade group for affordable housing developers. "Things are in really bad shape."

"When our members open a new project, the number of applicants per unit is in the hundreds and in some cases there are waiting lists of 2,000 families," Breidenbach said.

Nationally, the report spotlights the results of a 25-year trend: Steady growth in the number of poor renters combined with slight declines in the number of low-cost rental units.

By 1995, the latest year for which census data on housing is available, there were 4.4 million more low-income renter households than affordable rental units, the study found.

This was a turnaround from 1970, when there were slightly more low-cost units than poor renters.

"Even though we're a stronger, wealthier economy than we were 25 years ago, the trends are growing more adverse and the low-income housing shortage is worsening," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the nonpartisan center that specializes in research on poverty issues. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations are among the sponsors of its studies.

Low-Wage Workers Continue to Struggle

Greenstein and other analysts attributed the widening gap to higher rents driven by increased utility and maintenance costs, very slow growth in the amount of federal housing subsidies and a surge in the ranks of the poor, partly because of population growth, but primarily because of economic restructuring in which millions of low-wage workers continue to struggle.

"Less-skilled jobs, filled by people with lower-than-average education, have not done well," he said. "The wages those jobs pay offer significantly lower purchasing power than they did 20 years ago."

The study focused on 10.5 million American households earning less than $12,000 per year.

It found that that well over half of those households paid more than half of their annual income for rent.

The federal government considers 30% of income for rent an affordable level. At wages of $12,000 per year, that amounts to rent of $300 per month.

In California's metropolitan centers, where housing costs tend to be high, 90% of poor tenants paid more than that for rent, the study found; three-quarters paid more than half of their income.

"Housing prices are just way out of whack [particularly in the Bay Area and Southern California]," said Peter Dreier, professor of public policy at Occidental College and a former housing director for Boston. "It's not just the poor, but also the middle class who are paying a higher proportion of their income to put a roof over their heads."

Although the study provides a snapshot of housing conditions at a time when most of the nation had put the recession of the early 1990s behind, that was less true in California, where recovery was slower than in the rest of the country. Southern California was among the last areas to enter the boom, beginning a recovery in 1995.

Analysts suggested, however, that the use of 1995 data probably had minimal impact on Southern California's showing. The improving Southern California economy has primarily helped the top 20% or 30% of wage earners, Dreier said: "It certainly hasn't helped the poor, including the working poor, and Los Angeles has the highest proportion of working poor in the country."

Most federal housing aid comes in the form of so-called Section 8 certificates, whose recipients pay 30% of certain types of their income for rent, while the federal government pays the rest.

About 40,000 households in the city of Los Angeles receive the main form of Section 8 assistance. But demand far exceeds a supply that has remained frozen for several years.

Steve Renahan, who administers the program in the city of Los Angeles, said applications were last taken eight years ago. Eighty thousand households applied for spots that have become available as recipients leave at the rate of 2,000 per year.

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