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Low pay, high rent, wit's end

As gentrification pushes poor residents out of L.A. neighborhoods where housing once was cheap, hunting for a new place can get desperate.

October 24, 2006|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO SANCHEZ and Yolanda Ibarra were running out of time.

It was already mid-March, and in less than a month they and their six children would have to leave their $662-a-month apartment in an old building halfway up a dead-end street in Echo Park. They'd been scouring neighborhoods to the north, east and south of downtown Los Angeles for vacancy signs. But even after repeatedly lowering their expectations, they hadn't found a single thing they could afford.

The couple's growing sense of panic was shared by many longtime residents of their 16-unit rent-controlled building, which was being vacated for renovations. In the wide carpeted hallways, the unlucky tenants compared their fruitless searches and joked about sleeping under bridges.

The families at 1616 Delta St. were competing with thousands of other low-income residents being pushed out of Echo Park, Westlake, Hollywood and other gentrifying neighborhoods, the very places where so many immigrants had found cheap housing a decade earlier.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Apartment: An article in the Oct. 24 Section A about an Echo Park family looking for a new apartment said that the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance limits annual rent increases to about 3%. In July, the annual rent increase was raised to 4%. Also, the story focused on a family offered money by their landlord in exchange for agreeing to move, at one point referring to the family's "eviction." Although they moved at the request of the landlord, they were not evicted.

"What's going to happen to us?" wondered Sanchez, 35, who sat in a tiny living room surrounded by nine years' worth of family mementos. "We'll end up old with no place to live."


LOS ANGELES is a city of renters -- 61% of its households don't own the places where they live, one of the highest rates in the country, according to the 2000 census.

Average rents in the city have jumped 82% in the last 10 years, to $1,750 a month, according to surveys of large properties by RealFacts, a Bay Area real estate consulting firm. In pockets like Echo Park, they've more than doubled.

In addition, apartment buildings that once housed low-wage workers have been torn down or converted to condominiums at an accelerating rate. The city has seen a loss of about 9,000 rent-controlled units -- the only kind of apartments tracked -- just since the start of 2005, according to Housing Department records.

Most new construction, meanwhile, has been aimed at the luxury market.

Tenants have some protection under the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual rent increases to about 3% as long as the same tenants are in the unit. But it applies only to housing built before the law took effect in 1979 and thus covers an ever-shrinking share of the city's housing stock.

As market rents have soared, so has the motivation to get rid of longtime tenants, who might be paying half the going rate.

At first, Sanchez and Ibarra wanted to fight their eviction. But a tenant advocate they consulted advised against it. With six children, they were unlikely to win. The owner's offer of $10,000 to leave within three months was better than the $8,200 relocation fee required by the city, the advocate said.

The best option, she advised, was to take the money and go.


FOR nine years, the Sanchez-Ibarra family home had been a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a faded, dusky purple building with a tile roof and red bougainvillea growing wild around the entryway, a 1927 charmer gone dingy from years of neglect.

Many of the building's tenants had been there even longer, holding on to rents as low as $450 a month. Like Sanchez and Ibarra, they'd found ways to pack their expanding families into limited spaces: Bunk beds. Folding tables and chairs. Closets stuffed to the point of explosion.

It was a different neighborhood when Sanchez and Ibarra moved in. Back then, gang members battled for turf outside, and innocent residents got caught in the crossfire. One night, Sanchez, on his way home from the garment factory, was mugged by boys who seemed no older than 13.

Then the neighborhood started to change -- slowly at first, then like an avalanche.

On the forlorn stretch of Echo Park Avenue where Sanchez was mugged, vacant storefronts filled with galleries and boutiques. The buzz of their opening-night crowds drifted up to the apartment, inviting people outside into the warm air.

On the corner, a new coffee shop offered wireless Internet service, and laptops sprouted on outdoor tables like flowers after a rain.

From their entry gate, the tenants watched as other apartment buildings were sold, painted vibrant colors and rented to more-affluent crowds.

The value of the Delta Street apartments rose with the neighborhood's. In 1995, the building, not quite 10,000 square feet, was sold out of foreclosure for $250,000 by a bank that couldn't seem to get rid of it. Last year, an investor group, Western Regional Properties, spent $1.265 million for the same place.

When the buyout letters arrived, a few tenants -- those with good jobs and promising futures -- saw the $10,000 relocation fee as a windfall. Most initially fought to stay, knowing how quickly the money would disappear in the open rental market. In the end, however, every one of them signed.

Weeks passed, then months. The hallways grew more quiet. Junk mail sent to vacated units piled up under the slots in the entryway. There was a palpable anxiety, broken by the occasional gallows humor.

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