From the balcony of her Crescent Drive apartment, Shari Able takes in the luxurious view — a picture-postcard panorama of the homes of Beverly Hills. Her home sits above a Whole Foods stocked with organic kabocha squash and Dungeness crabs. Rodeo Drive's boutiques are a brisk walk away.
But the 74-year-old is quick to warn elderly suitors who think her 90210 ZIP Code means a cushy bank account. Her federally subsidized apartment costs her roughly $200 a month, she said.
"I told one guy from Long Beach, 'I live in Beverly Hills, but it's the only HUD building in Beverly Hills,'" Able recalled one morning over coffee and madeleines. "He said thanks — and hung up!"
In the American imagination, "Beverly Hills" is shorthand for the good life — movie stars, mansions, Maseratis. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, the average household income in Beverly Hills is nearly $193,000 annually, well more than double the national average. But those rarefied statistics mask a more complicated reality. While the richest fifth of Beverly Hills households make an average of nearly $661,000, the poorest bring in less than $14,500.
That means the wealthiest fifth make more than 45 times as much as the poorest fifth, the biggest gap between rich and poor among California cities of similar size or larger, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Census Bureau estimates spanning 2010 to 2012. Roughly one out of nine households in Beverly Hills, population 35,000, are categorized as "extremely low income," city documents show, with single people earning less than $17,950 and two-person households bringing in less than $20,050.
"These issues of concern do exist in Beverly Hills," said Rochelle Ginsburg, chairwoman of the city's human relations commission. "It's not just Rodeo Drive."
And nowhere is that more obvious than at the apartments above the Whole Foods. The building is indeed the only housing in Beverly Hills subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, city officials say. Its elderly residents include longtime Beverly Hills denizens who suffered catastrophic health problems or failed to save adequately for retirement, along with poor Angelenos who had previously lived elsewhere.
For the formerly affluent, staying in Beverly Hills is a comfort, a part of their lives that didn't have to change along with their fortunes. For those who have never known wealth, it is an unexpected foray into a radically different world — a chance to be part of a famously ritzy community, on a budget.
Built in 1984 on city-owned land, the complex has 151 units. It is one of 18 buildings operated by the non-sectarian, nonprofit Menorah Housing Foundation. Residents typically pay about 30% of their income for rent, although medical expenses can qualify tenants for reduced payments. Applicants must be at least 62, with a maximum income of $29,000 for one-person households.
Inside the dormlike building is a community room where classes are held on knitting, light exercise and conversational English (for the many Farsi-speaking residents). From the central courtyard, residents can survey the dome of nearby City Hall.
Menorah President Anne Friedrich declined to answer questions about the Beverly Hills facility "out of respect for the privacy and safety of our residents."
Seniors make up an estimated 40% of the city's extremely low income households. In an interview, city officials recounted tearful phone calls from longtime Beverly Hills residents who moved into town when rents were low and were struggling to stay put as housing costs surged.
"There's just no way they're going to find anything that's even close" to what they once paid, said Michele McGrath, principal planner. "There isn't enough senior housing available."
Libby Wein, 80, a geriatric social worker whose annual income from Social Security is just shy of $21,000, recently landed in a $346-a-month, 420-square-foot studio unit after her husband suffered financial setbacks and then died. Her apartment has a view of an alley and the Montage, a luxury hotel. The adjustment from her previous middle-class lifestyle has been tough, she said, but she welcomes being back in familiar territory where she and her husband raised their children, with other seniors in similar circumstances.
For Wein, proximity to high-end boutiques has not led to sudden cravings for clothing or home furnishings priced beyond her means. "I'm definitely not the Rodeo Drive type," she said.
"I struggle between 'This shouldn't be happening to me' and being very grateful," she said. "Even though this is not the Taj Mahal, and it's as big as a button, you tell me how else I could afford to live in Beverly Hills."
Elderly residents with low incomes point out that groceries, the dry cleaner and the pharmacy are nearby. Safety is not much of a worry. But there are also trade-offs: Some residents unable to afford Whole Foods take shuttles or drive to grocery stores elsewhere. Others qualify for deliveries by Meals on Wheels.
"People don't want to move because it's like a cocoon," said Regina Sgroi, a longtime Beverly Hills resident who volunteers with the city's senior lunch program. "Beverly Hills Police Department. Beverly Hills Fire Department." She snapped her fingers. "They're on it. Like that."
In a bare auditorium at La Cienega Park, Sgroi served up disposable trays of glazed sweet potatoes and roast turkey to elderly diners who forked over anywhere from $2.25 to nothing at all. One woman with glitzy pink earrings raved about the city's free senior shuttle, calling it "the best deal in town."
Able reels off stories about her eclectic career as a professor, therapist and filmmaker. She counseled teens and families, produced a documentary about the guru Baba Muktananda and his followers, and says she once led "assertiveness trainings" for timorous New York University students afraid to confront their landlords.
Ill health landed her on disability at age 55. Able said that before she snagged one of the coveted studio apartments at Menorah, she was living lean in Beverly Hills. She managed to make the $700-a-month rent at her old apartment by renting out space to UCLA medical students. Sometimes she borrowed money from her kids. Today, she says, she lives on about $1,100 a month.
Leon Kessler, 79, whose reversals in the student loan business left him driving a cab, said he was surprised to learn from his brother that Beverly Hills had HUD housing. Kessler said he waited six years to get in and has lived there for five years. Disabled by anxiety and injuries, he spends his time watching TV and chatting with building staff. Once a week, he goes to a coffee shop or to a diner. "I like being in Beverly Hills," he said. "I've always worked around here. … It's a good people-watching city."
On a winter afternoon, Able sips a half-price Negroni cocktail at happy hour at the nearby Caffé Roma, where she once spied a brother of Sylvester Stallone.
"If you're going to be poor," she said, "it ain't so bad in Beverly Hills."