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High-Rent Cities List Crowded by California

June 06, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

If you're a Californian having trouble making the monthly rent payment, the U.S. Census Bureau might have figured out why.

Nine of the 10 cities with the highest median rents in the country are in California, led by Orange County's master-planned city of Irvine, according to a new analysis of 2000 census data. Most, like Irvine, are upper-middle-class suburban communities.

The rankings are of cities with populations of more than 100,000, which omits such tony rental markets as Malibu and Newport Beach. And big cities like San Francisco and New York that are known for sky-high rents ranked lower on the list because they also have large low-income neighborhoods that bring down the average.

Five of the 10 cities with the highest median rents in the census report are in the Bay Area, which experts attributed to the report's being conducted in April 2000, the final days of a hot housing market driven by the dot-com boom. The other four California cities in the top 10 are in Southern California: top-ranked Irvine, fifth-ranked Thousand Oaks, eighth-ranked Simi Valley and 10th-ranked Huntington Beach. The only non-California city ranked was Stamford, Conn., which was ninth.

At a median of $1,272 per month in 2000, Irvine outpaced such former dot-com enclaves as Sunnyvale, at $1,270 per month. No similar city rankings were computed using the 1990 census, officials said.

About 37% of Irvine residents are renters, according to city statistics, although it's unclear how many rent apartments or single-family homes. Many renters earn comfortable incomes and choose to rent in Irvine rather than buy somewhere else. Among them are Michele Eser, 45, her husband and four children, who live in a three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot townhouse near William R. Mason Regional Park. The townhouse is the second home the family has rented in Irvine since selling a home in Santa Ana three years ago.

The reason for the move: Their oldest daughter reached high school age, and they wanted her to attend Irvine's acclaimed University High School.

Eser said the family looked around for a home large enough to hold their family and within their price range -- about $390,000 -- but found nothing within the draw area for University High.

"We had no choice if we wanted [the children] to go to Uni," said Eser, who works in the corporate purchasing department for Irvine-based El Pollo Loco restaurants. "We have money for a down payment -- we sold our home. It's just that the housing prices are out of our range ....We could afford a two-bedroom, but there is no way a two-bedroom would fit six people."

So the family rents, paying $1,850 a month for a townhouse that includes a bonus room over the garage and backs up to a greenbelt and a neighborhood pool. Eser estimated it would cost $480,000 to buy a similar home.

She said the family plans to keep renting until the youngest child, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, graduates.

"If we couldn't do anything else for our kids, we can at least provide them with an education," said Eser, whose husband runs his own handyman business. "They all know they have to go to college."

State housing experts cited the census report as further evidence that California continues to wrestle with a housing crisis.

"California for the last few years has consistently had the top least-affordable metro areas in the country," said Cathy Creswell, deputy director of the state department of Housing and Community Development. "In the last decade we have produced about half of the housing that we need per year."

Even the housing that is getting built has been skewed toward single-family homes, targeted for people who want to own their houses, she said. New rental construction has lagged, dropping from about 45% of new construction in the 1980s to about 25% in the 1990s.

The reason: a mix of tax laws governing depreciation for owners of rental properties, desire by local cities to develop tax-generating commercial areas and resistance by neighborhoods of existing single-family homes to accepting apartments nearby.

Housing experts said the high rents follow the overall high cost of housing, which has forced low-wage -- and even middle-class -- workers to live far from their jobs, exacerbating already legendary problems with traffic, smog and commute times.

And with more families paying higher percentages of their monthly income to keep a roof over their heads, other spending drops off, both for necessary items such as food and medicine and for the kind of discretionary spending -- restaurant meals and entertainment -- that fuels local economies.

"People aren't saving -- people are living on the edge, paycheck to paycheck," said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project, an independent policy analysis organization in Sacramento. "People are in danger of real financial difficulty if they lose their job."

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