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Study Finds Rent Burden Growing for Poor Families

In Los Angeles County, low-wage earners are being squeezed out of the apartment market, housing officials say.

September 09, 2003|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

Low-wage earners in Southern California, especially in Los Angeles County and the Inland Empire, are increasingly struggling to afford rents for decent apartments, according to a study released Monday.

The annual report by the Washington-based National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group for the poor, found that a worker in Los Angeles County must earn $21.98 an hour -- more than three times the state minimum wage of $6.75 -- to pay rent on a standard two-bedroom apartment.

That means a minimum-wage earner in L.A. County would have to work 130 hours a week to be able to afford rent, and that same worker in San Bernardino County would need to log 103 hours a week.

The federal government considers housing affordable when it costs 30% or less of gross income.

The widening affordability gap between minimum wages and rents reflects the rapid run-up in housing costs in recent years.

Last year, the average rent for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment climbed 4.7% to $1,523 in Los Angeles County, according to RealFacts, a Novato, Calif.-based firm. In San Bernardino County, the average cost for a comparable apartment rose 5.7% to $981 last year, and it climbed 4.6% to $988 in Riverside County.

Rents in Orange and Ventura counties rose at a more modest pace last year, said Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. for Nonprofit Housing.

In Los Angeles County, about 523,000 workers, or 13.8% of the total salary and wage employees, earned within a dollar of the state's minimum wage, according to the California Budget Project, a research and policy group in Sacramento.

Roberto Gaspar, a cook at a Century City restaurant, pays $975 a month for a one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, Evangelina, their two young children, plus his brother and brother-in-law. Together, the four adults gross about $2,500 a month, about 40% of which goes to housing costs.

"We have ants and cockroaches here, and desperately want another place to live," Gaspar, 26, said of his unit in Los Angeles' Koreatown. "But two-bedroom apartments cost $1,200 -- I've looked -- and I'd have to make at least $1,600 a month to afford that."

Nationally, the situation isn't much better. The hourly wage needed to afford a so-called fair market-rate apartment was $15.21 last year -- three times the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, according to Monday's report.

In Los Angeles County, the housing problems for low-wage earners have been compounded by the shrinking apartment vacancy rate, which fell to 4% last year from 10% in 1999.

As a result, that has put upward pressure on rents and squeezed families with federally subsidized housing vouchers out of the apartment market, said Steve Renahan, director of Section 8 for the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.

Only 51% of those issued vouchers were able to find affordable housing last year, compared with 90% in 1999.

About 50,000 families in the county are receiving Section 8 rental vouchers, and 63,000 families are on a waiting list.

"The housing situation is terrible for the working poor," Breidenbach said. "Things are being done on the local level, but we'll need another 100 steps to make it better."

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