In a time of economic growth, more Americans than ever are too poor to find rental housing they can afford and, by most measures, the problem is most acute in Los Angeles County and northern Orange County.
According to a study released Monday by the Washington, D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the nation's widest gap in affordable housing is in Southern California, where there are four times more low-income renters than there are low-cost units for them to rent.
The gap here between needy renters and affordable units is twice the national average of 2 to 1.
Los Angeles County and the Santa Ana-Anaheim metropolitan area also have the highest proportion of low-income tenants living in overcrowded conditions and are among urban areas with the lowest proportion of poor residents receiving government housing aid.
The region shares with metropolitan areas in Northern California the distinction of having the largest percentage of poor tenants who spend the vast majority of their income on shelter, the study found.
"It confirms what we know," said Jan Breidenbach, director of the Southern California Assn. of Nonprofit Housing, a trade group for affordable housing developers. "Things are in really bad shape."
"When our members open a new project, the number of applicants per unit is in the hundreds and in some cases there are waiting lists of 2,000 families," Breidenbach said.
Nationally, the report spotlights the results of a 25-year trend: Steady growth in the number of poor renters combined with slight declines in the number of low-cost rental units.
By 1995, the latest year for which census data on housing is available, there were 4.4 million more low-income renter households than affordable rental units, the study found.
This was a turnaround from 1970, when there were slightly more low-cost units than poor renters.
"Even though we're a stronger, wealthier economy than we were 25 years ago, the trends are growing more adverse and the low-income housing shortage is worsening," said Robert Greenstein, executive director of the nonpartisan center that specializes in research on poverty issues. The Ford and Rockefeller foundations are among the sponsors of its studies.
Low-Wage Workers Continue to Struggle
Greenstein and other analysts attributed the widening gap to higher rents driven by increased utility and maintenance costs, very slow growth in the amount of federal housing subsidies and a surge in the ranks of the poor, partly because of population growth, but primarily because of economic restructuring in which millions of low-wage workers continue to struggle.
"Less-skilled jobs, filled by people with lower-than-average education, have not done well," he said. "The wages those jobs pay offer significantly lower purchasing power than they did 20 years ago."
The study focused on 10.5 million American households earning less than $12,000 per year.
It found that that well over half of those households paid more than half of their annual income for rent.
The federal government considers 30% of income for rent an affordable level. At wages of $12,000 per year, that amounts to rent of $300 per month.
In California's metropolitan centers, where housing costs tend to be high, 90% of poor tenants paid more than that for rent, the study found; three-quarters paid more than half of their income.
"Housing prices are just way out of whack [particularly in the Bay Area and Southern California]," said Peter Dreier, professor of public policy at Occidental College and a former housing director for Boston. "It's not just the poor, but also the middle class who are paying a higher proportion of their income to put a roof over their heads."
Although the study provides a snapshot of housing conditions at a time when most of the nation had put the recession of the early 1990s behind, that was less true in California, where recovery was slower than in the rest of the country. Southern California was among the last areas to enter the boom, beginning a recovery in 1995.
Analysts suggested, however, that the use of 1995 data probably had minimal impact on Southern California's showing. The improving Southern California economy has primarily helped the top 20% or 30% of wage earners, Dreier said: "It certainly hasn't helped the poor, including the working poor, and Los Angeles has the highest proportion of working poor in the country."
Most federal housing aid comes in the form of so-called Section 8 certificates, whose recipients pay 30% of certain types of their income for rent, while the federal government pays the rest.
About 40,000 households in the city of Los Angeles receive the main form of Section 8 assistance. But demand far exceeds a supply that has remained frozen for several years.
Steve Renahan, who administers the program in the city of Los Angeles, said applications were last taken eight years ago. Eighty thousand households applied for spots that have become available as recipients leave at the rate of 2,000 per year.
Later this year, Renahan said he plans to accept new applications for a brief period. He is anticipating at least 160,000.
Several signs point to worsening conditions.
As the local economy rebounds, all evidence suggests that market rents are creeping up, said Paul J. Silvern, a partner in the consulting firm of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, which is under contract with the city to periodically evaluate Los Angeles' rent stabilization law.
Very little new affordable housing for the poor is being built, Silvern said, and, at the same time, changes in federal policies have made it more difficult for lower-income households to keep the units they have.
The federal government recently reduced the amount it will pay to landlords under new Section 8 contracts and notified landlords that they have the right to leave the program at any time after a year.
Renters Face Threat of Eviction
Elena Popp, a housing lawyer for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, deals with the impact of those changes daily, filing lawsuits on behalf of Section 8 tenants challenging landlords' decisions to evict them without good cause, such as failure to pay rent. She argues typically that even though the federal government no longer requires good cause to terminate a rental relationship, individual rental contracts still do.
So far, she has been able to delay evictions for clients such as Bennie M. Rayo, a 75-year-old with emphysema, who said she pays $131 from her Social Security disability check toward the rent of a small house near Crenshaw High School. Rayo said she does not know the total rent, just that Section 8 makes up the rest.
When her landlord told her recently she would have to move, Rayo said she hired someone to help her look for a new place, but every place she found was "either $50 or $60 more than Section 8 would allow me to pay."
She said she offered to pay more under the table, but no one was willing to risk getting in trouble with the people who run Section 8.
Rayo, who is on oxygen 24 hours a day, said she does not know what she will do.
"I'm so stressed," she said.
Another client is Lekefee Collins, a 27-year-old single mother of two in Mar Vista, who said her landlord no longer wants to take Section 8 funds and is demanding that Collins pay the $840 per month for her two-bedroom apartment personally or leave.
Collins, who said she is looking for work as her youngest child prepares to enter first grade in the fall, said she now pays only $66 per month from her Aid to Families With Dependent Children allotment of $565.
If she didn't have Section 8 assistance and could not find a job, she said, she would probably be forced to live with her daughters in a single room.
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Growing Housing Shortage
The number of low-income renters nationwide rose from 1970 to 1995, while the number of low-cost units declined.
Low-cost units (less than $300/mo. in 1995): 6/5
Low-income renters (less than $12,000/yr. in 1995): 6.2
Low-cost units (less than $300/mo. in 1995): 5.7
Low-income renters (less than $12,000/yr. in 1995): 7.4
Low-cost units (less than $300/mo. in 1995): 5.6
Low-income renters (less than $12,000/yr. in 1995): 8.9
Low-cost units (less than $300/mo. in 1995): 6.2
Low-income renters (less than $12,000/yr. in 1995): 9.6
Low-cost units (less than $300/mo. in 1995): 6.1
Low-income renters (less than $12,000/yr. in 1995): 10.5
Southern California has the nation's greatest low-cost rental housing gap.
Ratio of Low-income Renters in Low-Cost Units:
4-1: Anaheim-Santa Ana
4-1: Los Angeles County
2.3-1: New York-Nassau-Suffolk
* Source Center on Budget and Policy Priorities