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A Crisis in Housing

As Affordability and Availability Decline, All Classes Feel the Economic Pinch

May 21, 2000|BOB RECTOR | Bob Rector is opinion page editor for the Valley and Ventura County editions of The Times

A recent report by a city task force painted a bleak picture of affordable housing in Los Angeles, a bad situation that could become dramatically worse in the future, according to its authors.

The Los Angeles Housing Crisis Task Force stated that the city's housing prices have risen so much "they devour the wages of working families with the result that many people end up living in overcrowded and unsafe conditions."

And while the city's population is growing by tens of thousands each year, affordable housing is being added by the hundreds, the report said.

Responding to the report, City Council members Mike Feuer, Jackie Goldberg and Nick Pacheco have called for the city to study establishing a housing trust fund, which would help low-income residents buy homes and provide financial incentives to landlords who rented apartments at below-market rates.

The Times recently interviewed Feuer about the scope of the housing problem and possible solutions to it.

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Question: What is the status of affordable housing in the city of Los Angeles right now?

Answer: We have a housing crisis. And it's a crisis that affects everybody in the city. For example, it would take a person earning minimum wage 100 hours a week of work to afford a two-bedroom apartment that costs $766. That encapsulates a big part of the problem. A couple of years ago, the city opened up a waiting list for Section 8 (federal rent subsidy) housing. Ten percent of the city's households applied. It's a 10-year waiting list. Hundreds of thousands, maybe as many as a million people, in our city live in substandard housing conditions. Most of these people are kids. One in seven people in the city lives in overcrowded housing conditions.

There's no way for people at the lower end of our economic spectrum to be able to afford a decent place to live in our city. A hard-working wage earner, someone who is helping sustain the economic recovery, not lead it, is relegated to living in substandard housing conditions and has children who may never see conditions other than those.

Q: That's a bleak picture but, not surprisingly, one that is rooted in poverty.

A: It's a completely unacceptable situation in our city. And it has a moral as well as a legal dimension to it. I think that it's intolerable for a city to allow a third, a quarter, of its population to live this way, in conditions that the balance of the city would never, for one second, tolerate. But this is not merely a problem for poor people. In order to be able to sustain economic growth at the middle and upper-middle level, people need to be able to afford to buy houses here. Los Angeles has the second-worst rate of housing ownership of any city in the country, New York being first. Employers in Los Angeles are having a difficult time recruiting people to come here because of housing costs. One of a couple of things happens: Either new homeowners scrape up enough money for a home that comes nowhere close to their expectations or, more likely, they end up living far from where they work, which intensifies another crisis in our community, and that is our transportation crisis. So there's a whole array of pieces that are interrelated.

Q: Given that, would it be easier to tackle the transportation problem than the housing problem?

A: To look at the two areas in isolation is a mistake because of the dynamic I just described. They're actually very deeply related to each other. For example, as the transportation infrastructure improves a little bit, should we be concentrating housing near transportation hubs, to make it easier for people to rely on other forms of transit than their cars? These issues go to the heart of who we're going to be as a community for a long time to come. And again, it affects everybody throughout the entire city. Even people who actually have houses here or can afford to buy in Los Angeles will find the quality of their lives dramatically eroded if our economy sputters because we can no longer attract people to work here or because workers who have sustained the economy, like the janitor or the food service worker, can no longer tolerate the conditions that we have here, and move elsewhere.

Q: What can government do?

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