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A Bumpy Flight From Blight

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Allen Course, 35, knows all about the gap in affordable housing. He and his two children fell right through it last year, ending up homeless and on the street.

The lowest point came when they were waiting for the doors to open at a shelter in Santa Monica, a worn red bag holding everything they owned.

“A man drove by and a couple of minutes later he came back with a loaf of white bread and a package of sliced turkey. He handed it to me and gave me a dollar and said: ‘Good luck,’ ” said Course, tears streaming down his face at the memory. “I never thought my kids would have to see me like that.”

With about $300 in his pocket and his pay as a minimum-wage day laborer far from steady, Course had nowhere to go. He had been paying $250 a month to share a two-bedroom apartment in Compton with eight people, but left because he worried for the safety of his 12-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son and disliked living in squalor. But with a prison record for assault, he couldn’t find a better job. And that meant he couldn’t afford another place to live.

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A national study released last week found that for Los Angeles’ 477,000 low-income renters--households that earn less than $12,000 a year--there are only 120,000 units that rent for less than $300 a month. The 4-1 ratio in Los Angeles and Orange counties is the highest in the nation.

Course is one of the lucky ones. Through a program of the Los Angeles Family Housing Corp. he got back on his feet. His temporary apartment in North Hollywood is kept spit-shine clean. Next week, he and daughter Nichole and son Allen Jr. will move to a two-bedroom courtyard building in North Hills on a federal Section 8 voucher that provides up to $735 a month in rent.

It took Course 60 days, the maximum time the voucher allowed, to find a place that would take his family. More than 15 apartments turned him down because of bad credit. He owes more than $21,000 in back child support and interest to the state for the period his ex-wife had custody of the children and was on welfare.

Jan Breidenbach, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Non-Profit Housing, said she hears stories like Course’s every day. Her association represents 130 nonprofit housing developers, most of which have waiting lists for new occupants ranging from a couple hundred to more than 2,000.

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In the 1960s, the federal government stopped building public housing and began providing so-called Section 8 vouchers to qualified tenants. The vouchers guaranteed private landlords a subsidy for renting to poor families in exchange for attractive federally backed mortgages.

Now, with many of those mortgages being paid off, the number of apartments available for low-income tenants is declining. About 6,000 apartments in Los Angeles alone are expected to be taken off the government rent-subsidy rolls in the next six years.

The projections, announced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development late last year, make Breidenbach and other affordable-housing advocates very nervous.

Federal guidelines suggest that housing costs not exceed 30% of gross income. For a minimum-wage earner working a 40-hour week, that formula would allow for a little less than $250 a month in rent.

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“For $300 a month you can find a slum now and then. You might find a rundown studio,” said Breidenbach. “Many people in Los Angeles are housing poor as well as working poor. Every day people in this city make a choice between food and shelter.”

At San Fernando Gardens public housing development, Javier and Bertha Bedolla are used to rice and beans for dinner.

“That’s all we eat,” said Javier, 53. “Rice and beans all the time.”

Even with public housing, which requires they pay 30% of his $6.35-an-hour painting job toward rent, the Bedollas have a hard time paying their bills. They have no car. Their three daughters--ages 12, 10 and 4--wear hand-me downs or thrift store clothes and share a single bicycle.

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Javier Bedolla said he wants a better life for his children, he just can’t afford one. Bertha Bedolla, 29, just finished training to be a child-care provider and hopes to start work soon. In anticipation of more income, the Bedollas looked at apartments last month, thinking about making the move.

“I saw a one-bedroom in Sylmar for $575 a month,” he said, shaking his head. “Sometimes I don’t even make that much in a month. How would I buy shoes for my kids? Buy food?”

Housing experts say the Los Angeles real estate market is unique in several ways. The city has far more renters in comparison to homeowners than the national average, 60% rent in L.A. versus only 33% nationally, said Breidenbach. And in the San Fernando Valley, where vacancy rates are now even lower than in pre-1994 Northridge earthquake days--housing experts say some apartment owners prefer to leave units empty rather than lower the rent.

“You can find housing anywhere,” said Joseph Corcoran, the low-income housing project manager for the nonprofit Family Housing Corp. “But how much of your income are you willing to put into it? For some people $600 a month would be well over 50% of their income.”

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Spending that much does not guarantee a nice place to live. In particular, affordable-housing experts cite the estimated 200,000 illegal converted garage units in the city, which they say some tenants believe are safer than overcrowded apartment buildings. But at least eight people have died in fires in the illegal units in the last two years in Los Angeles.

Breidenbach said people do what they must to keep a roof over their heads.

“Los Angeles has both high vacancy rates and overcrowding, which is unusual,” said Breidenbach. “People live seven to a two-bedroom apartment here. That’s how they get to their affordability level.”

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The Bedollas think they could afford $350 a month in rent, which would most likely mean a studio apartment for the five-member family.

For now they will stay where they are, with the painting of the Last Supper on the kitchen wall and a scene from a Mexican bullfighting ring hanging in the linoleum-tiled living room.

“I would like my daughters to have at least a better life,” said Javier Bedolla, who came to California from Mexico 35 years ago and learned English on the streets. “A few years from now, we will be doing better. We’ll move.”

For Allen Course, who grew up in Compton, the San Fernando Valley seemed a better place for his children. Last fall, his son’s 9-year-old friend was killed in gang cross-fire while waiting for a bus for school. If Course had not transferred his children to another school just weeks before, he said they would have been standing at the same bus stop.

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At their new apartment in North Hills, his daughter Nichole lights up at the sight of the figure-eight swimming pool. In the apartment, with its dark brown carpeting, two baths and modest kitchen, she smiles. For the first time she will have her own room and bathroom.

“I like it,” Nichole said. “It’s nice.”

For her father it is a beginning. Even now there are setbacks. On his last payday, half the $54 he was expecting was garnisheed for back child support. Course said he cried on the bus ride home, turning so his children couldn’t see him. Then he shook it off.

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Soon he will start a yearlong training program to become an X-ray technician.

“I can’t accept being defeated,” he said. “If I’m defeated, then my kids are defeated and I refuse to let that happen.”


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