Study Says Housing Cost at Crisis Level for Poor

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Describing housing in Los Angeles County as among the least affordable in the nation, a report to be released today says poor residents here are spending a considerable chunk of their incomes on rent and crowding more and more people into their living quarters.

Although the shortage of affordable housing for the poor is a national problem, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities describes the situation in post-riot Los Angeles as "particularly acute."

Ninety-five percent of the county's poor households pay more than the federally recommended 30% of their income for housing--the highest such rate in the nation, the report says. One quarter of impoverished households live in overcrowded conditions, with more than one person per room.

That, too, is the highest level in the nation, according to the center's study.

Even those receiving federal subsidies are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, according to the center, a liberal, nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C. The maximum benefit paid a family of three under the Aid to Families With Dependent Children program is $663 a month, yet the fair-market rent and utility charges for a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles total $804, the report says.

"There are problems of affordable housing in every single metropolitan area in the country, but Los Angeles stands out," said Paul Leonard, the research analyst who wrote the report. "It has problems that are worse than the nation as a whole. There's a real housing crisis for poor households in Los Angeles."

Ernest Edwards, a 23-year-old security guard, is one who is feeling the pinch. He lives in a one-bedroom apartment in the Mid-Wilshire area with his girlfriend and her 7-year-old son. Edwards makes $6 an hour guarding office buildings at night, for total earnings of $710 a month. Of that, $550 goes to rent.

"It's real rough," he said. "I'm stuck. Most of (the rest of) our money is going for food. Once I buy a bus pass to get to my job, there's not much left."

The center's report, based on federal housing data published in December, does not surprise those who have been working in the field. The City Council adopted its first citywide strategy on affordable housing last fall, with officials acknowledging that the problem was worsening at an alarming rate.

The Los Angeles Housing Authority has 17,500 people on its waiting list for the 80 to 90 units that become available each month in the city's 18 public housing projects. The number waiting would be even higher if the city had not stopped taking applications June 1, said Housing Authority spokesman Marshall Kandell.

The wait for Section 8 federal housing assistance--which provides rental subsidies for people in private housing--is even longer. There are 43,000 applicants for Section 8 help, and no new applications have been taken in years.

Federal guidelines say that housing is considered affordable if it consumes no more than 30% of a household's income. The center's report says the typical poor household in Los Angeles spends 77% of its income on rent.

On such a budget, housing advocates say, there is little room for emergencies.

"You can't eat well," said Tanya Tull, executive director of Beyond Shelter, a local group that helps homeless families move into apartments. "You have nothing left for any extras. The slightest mistake in budgeting throws you onto the street."

Housing advocates hope the center's report--part of an annual look at the housing situation in America's major cities--will heighten the focus on the issue during the post-riot rebuilding discussions.

"I don't think there's enough attention on housing," said Jan Breidenback, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing. "It seems to be pushed off the agenda, even though housing is fundamental."

Rebuild L.A., the group coordinating the city's response to the civil unrest, has formed a housing committee, but it has not yet met.

"We're very aware that affordable housing in the neglected areas is in short supply, just as economic opportunity is in short supply," said Jacqueline Dupont-Walker, who specializes in housing issues for Rebuild L.A. and is president of the city's Affordable Housing Commission. "It's an issue that is larger than we are and older than we are."

The new report, titled "A Place to Call Home," says that local governments and nonprofit organizations must play a role in solving housing problems. But the answer, ultimately, must come from Washington, it contends.

The Bush Administration's strategy on low-income housing has centered on its so-called HOPE program, which would turn public housing projects into private developments owned by residents.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, says he would transfer 10% of government-controlled housing to community nonprofit groups and churches to house the homeless. Clinton also backs increased tenant management and ownership of public housing.

The center's report argues that privatizing public housing would not solve the affordability crisis, because it is a policy directed primarily at those already receiving federal help in the projects. Instead, it would drain "limited resources from other low-income housing programs and (reduce) the overall number of households that can be assisted," the report says.

Nickerson Gardens in Watts, the city's largest housing project, is waiting for word from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on its application to participate in the privatization program. A department spokesman said decisions are expected later this month.

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