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Be It Ever So Humble, It Still Costs a Fortune

November 30, 2002|Ronnie I. Cohen

I had an Ivy League degree, was teaching high school in Pacific Palisades on an emergency credential, taking classes at night and holding down a second job at a community college. While sitting in traffic I'd imagine the day I could leave North Hollywood and move closer to work. And then I had it, the slip of paper catapulting me near the top of the LAUSD pay scale. It was time to move.

Given that I didn't have much money for a down payment, I first considered the Teacher Next Door program: The federal government pays half the price of a home, provided a teacher lives in a specific neighborhood. But the available addresses weren't going to work for my family.

I then called a real estate agent, who assured me that though prices were high, mortgage rates were low. It was time to break into the housing market. Every day I studied the offerings on the multiple listings service: West L.A., Westwood, Culver City, Palms, Venice, Santa Monica, Pico Robertson. I could not afford a small house in any of these areas.

No problem. Although I grew up in Southern California, I had lived on the East Coast in tiny apartments for years. I knew one could raise a family without a backyard and thousands of square feet.

The search was on for condominiums. The broker, knowing my wife and I have two boys, that we wanted safety, good schools and a relatively short commute to the Westside, raved about a large condo in Culver City. It was large enough and within our price range. What got me, though, were the two shops half a block away, large signs advertising "Guns, Ammo, Rifles, Firearms." The condo itself: no more charm than a cheap motel.

We continued the search. I wanted Westwood. A cute 1,100-square-foot condo across an alley from a Jiffy Lube. How about a mile farther west? Same square footage, lower price. Architectural style? Basic shelter. Neighborhood? A car dealership at the end of the alley.

Given my income, the agent shook her head when I mentioned Santa Monica. Still, she did show my wife a nifty 900-square-foot place next to a tile factory where saws serenaded the neighborhood. Then we were outbid on a condo in the Pico-Robertson area. This was probably a blessing because the price would have meant another job and less time with family.

We finally found a condo -- 1,250 square feet, no view, busy street and are now in escrow. My friend says there is "light gang activity" in the neighborhood, which, for me, is acceptable, the key word being "light." It is only two miles from the water's edge.

I am a success story, sort of. But I am able to jump into the market, in part, because my mother can help me with closing costs. But what of the Angelenos who cannot afford to buy and don't have generous mothers? Some people, usually homeowners who bought when prices were low, claim that those priced out of the market should stop whining, that they should leave cities where they have families, jobs and roots to seek lower-cost homes. After all, the reasoning goes, these are just market forces at work. Well, maybe, with a little greed thrown in.

Now that I have joined the 68% of Americans who own their own homes, I am not hoping for real estate prices to drop. I would, however, wish salaries to rise, so I might pay my mortgage and have money for a night out once every couple of months.


Ronnie I. Cohen, a teacher, currently lives in North Hollywood.

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