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A New Lease on Life? Not Yet

We park down the street, walk up the hill and pause at the base of the steps, where I can hear Lee Sevilla breathing hard.

She catches her wind, then climbs one flight and loses it again.

“This is nice,” she says of a bright and airy one-bedroom apartment in El Segundo, but she knows it’s iffy whether she could lug groceries and whatever else up those stairs day after day.

Sevilla is in her early 70s, has a heart condition and has spent nine years living in a compact car.

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“I’m tired,” she has told me. “I’m ready.”

Ready to have a home again after a divorce, a couple of bad breaks and an outrageous real estate market put her on the street. Even though she’s got money now -- thanks to readers who pitched in when I first wrote about Sevilla in May -- finding a place to live is a challenge.

This one, at $1,300 a month, would be fine, except for those stairs.

“I’ll call you on Monday and let you know,” Sevilla tells the landlord, but she already knows it’s probably a no-go.

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I didn’t see how it could be so hard to find a place if you’ve got money to spend, so I printed out a bunch of leads from Craig’s list and hit the pavement with her. It turns out she’s right. It’s tough, especially in her case.

Some places won’t take pets, and Sevilla won’t consider getting rid of Sandy, the Lhasa apso-terrier mix that’s been her constant companion through years of gas station sponge baths, bedtime prayers and weekend splurges at Motel 6.

A couple of landlords got nervous when they heard Sevilla couldn’t supply a current address. She’s tried HUD housing, but either the wait was too long or they wouldn’t take pets, and now she’s got too much money to qualify.

It doesn’t help that Sevilla has become unshakably partial to El Segundo, where she feels safe, works for a bathroom remodeling contractor and has friends who look after her. But it’s a small town with little turnover in the rental market.

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Would she consider Manhattan Beach, I asked?

Sure, she said. But the rent there is out of sight.

Playa?

Same thing.

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There’s a reason she’s not the only person in Los Angeles living in a car.

“I’d be willing to look at Westchester if I can’t find anything here,” she said.

I feel some responsibility, because part of Sevilla’s problem is my doing. She was overwhelmed by the response to her story and estimates that she still has 300 more letters to answer, many of them containing checks or cash and photos of pets for her to sketch.

She’s also the featured artist in a one-month exhibit at the El Segundo Public Library, with dozens of her pieces on display and available for sale. Sevilla focuses on endangered species and sees her work as a call for wildlife preservation and a red alert to the realities of global warming.

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“That’s my passion,” she said Thursday to the owner of a one-bedroom Westchester condominium that’s renting for $1,350, one of the cheaper listings I was able to dig up.

The owner told Sevilla a small dog would be OK. The price is up against her outer limits, Sevilla said, but that’s not what concerned her the most. She would have to climb a flight of stairs from the parking lot and another flight of stairs from the laundry room.

“I’ll let you know on Monday,” she said, and we drove to the next one, an $1,100 one-bedroom a little closer to the 405.

“You know,” she said as we approached, “I just don’t feel comfortable here. I’ve driven by and I’m worried about drug activity at the liquor store. I don’t think this is right for me.”

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I had found another good prospect near Loyola Marymount University, a one-bedroom duplex unit for $1,350. But the owner wanted to sleep on the idea of whether he would allow a dog, and when I checked back the next day he said sorry.

A one-bedroom apartment back in El Segundo looked like a good prospect, even though it was on a busy thoroughfare. It was listed at $1,225 and the ad said cats were OK.

Amazing what $1,225 gets you. The apartment was serviceable but kind of gloomy, just short of shabby, and close enough to LAX to raise the dust when jumbo jets thundered into the sky.

Will you take a dog? I asked.

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“You have to call the manager,” said the person showing us the apartment. “But the answer is always ‘no.’ ”

She wasn’t lying.

“It’s a small dog,” I argued.

“Sorry.”

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Sevilla had grabbed a copy of the El Segundo Herald, as she does every Thursday, and checked out an $850 listing.

“It was a rooming house,” she said. “I can’t believe they were asking that much.”

She had trouble finding a second listing but was on her way now to look at the third. It was a one-bedroom, close enough to the Chevron refinery to put octane in your orange juice. There was nothing special about the building, but the price was $1,150.

“It’s an upstairs too,” Sevilla said after leaving a phone message for the manager.

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As we stood outside, Sevilla shared a Bible class parable about the virtue of patience. If she’s waited nine years, she said, she can wait a little longer. It’s not as if she doesn’t enjoy her job and her life, along with her burgeoning career as an artist. And she still begins each day parked on a bluff in Playa del Rey, with a spectacular view to inspire her journal entries.

When I said goodbye, she asked me to please remember to print the letter she had given me.

“To all the people who responded ... " it began. “It took over six weeks to open the mail. There were so many orders for drawings and cards that it is going to take some time for me to respond to each one. I truly thank you for your kindness, generosity, concern, and your encouragement and prayers. I have a quote on my dashboard by Joseph Campbell:

“ ‘When you follow your bliss, doors will open where you would not have thought there were doors, and the world will step in and help.’

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“Thank you to each of you ... for making my deepest desire for a home possible.... My cup truly runneth over.

“May God bless you all,

“Lee and Sandy Sevilla.”

*

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Reach the columnist at steve.lopez@latimes.com and read previous columns at www.latimes.com/lopez.


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