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A Growing Population and a Fading Housing Dream

January 13, 2002|JAMES RICCI

I well remember the day 25 years ago when i bought my first house. I was so excited the night before the 10 a.m. closing that I couldn't sleep, and I spent the first hours after dawn hiking in a park to calm my nerves. I mean, I was going to own a home. I was going to be as stable, as substantial--as adult--as my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles. No more downstairs neighbors with their odd cooking smells and strange, muffled noises. No more contributing a check every month to somebody else's net worth.

It took a couple of decades of detaching roof shingles, foundation-busting tree roots, wood-loving insect life and sclerotic plumbing to reverse my psychology. I gradually came to feel more owned than owning. I began longing to return to a state I'd mistaken for deprivation and increasingly recognized as freedom.

About a year and a half ago, my children having grown and my long marriage having ended, I sold my house. I now live in a simple one-bedroom apartment with about one-tenth the space of my former domicile, which had three bedrooms and four (four!) baths. The air in my present few rooms may be less voluminous, but it seems more oxygenated.

Now my fond hope is never to own a house again. Although it conflicts with that of the vast majority of Southern California renters, who yearn to impoverish themselves for a place they can call their own, my highly evolved thinking on this matter is increasingly in harmony with reality in Los Angeles, where home ownership is, for most people, an economic mirage receding into the smoggy horizon.

According to the latest U.S. Census figures, L.A. now has a lower percentage of homeowners, 39.6%, than anywhere save New York City. (We're first, however, in the percentage of household wherewithal we pay for housing.) A recent report by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University gives insight into why.

Rising home prices continue to leave wages in the dust in L.A., the income-disparity capital of America. In a single year, 1999 to 2000, the median price of a home in Los Angeles County rose from $198,400 to $220,620. To qualify for a conventional mortgage on such a dwelling, a family has to make about $75,000 a year. Alas, the median household income in the county is only $53,000. "The home ownership rate among 25- to 45-year-olds--traditionally the source of most first-time home buyers--has undergone an unprecedented decline," the report states.

Builders, meanwhile, have largely lost their taste for constructing houses most people can afford. While plenty of building has been going on in recent years, it has been of the upscale variety, which gives developers the handsomest per-unit profit.

The real reason for all this, however, is the same one that lies beneath this region's every social ill, from bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic to temporary classrooms taking over kids' schoolyards. It's an issue public officials are loath to acknowledge, much less address--unchecked population growth, most of it driven by immigration.

During the 1990s, L.A. County's populace grew three times faster than the production of housing units. Moreover, it's projected to rise from the current 9.5 million to 11.6 million over the next 19 years, a 22.1% increase (the population of the five-county region is expected to jump 32.5%, to 21.6 million).

The Loyola Marymount study states that unless higher population densities are permitted by local authorities, land suitable for residential development in Los Angeles and Orange Counties will be exhausted in about 10 years. Even if all 165,600 available acres in L.A. County are developed, they'll accommodate only 65% of the projected growth in households by the year 2020.

In the meantime, existing homeowners in places such as Ventura County have panicked at the prospect of all remaining open space being turned into housing tracts. Having bought in Ventura precisely for its openness, they can envision the final swamping of their dwindling idyll. The growth control initiatives undertaken in such places have further limited the amount of new housing being built.

Something has to give, and it's going to be the die-hard, post-World War II American notion of the good life as defined by the affordable single-family house on its own plot of land. There are already too many people here to cram into that concept, and more are coming.

To those destined to be out of the running, let me suggest that apartment living isn't so bad, relatively speaking. Each morning from my kitchen window, I look down on a garage that a young couple have made into a home. It's probably illegal (there seems to be no toilet in the place, judging from the frequent treks the occupants make to the dilapidated house at the front of the lot). The housing report estimates 100,000 such garage dwellings now exist in L.A. County.

So, reluctant apartment-dwellers, take heart. A lot of people would love to be in your place.

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