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Low pay, high rent, wit’s end

Times Staff Writer

SANTIAGO SANCHEZ and Yolanda Ibarra were running out of time.

It was already mid-March, and in less than a month they and their six children would have to leave their $662-a-month apartment in an old building halfway up a dead-end street in Echo Park. They’d been scouring neighborhoods to the north, east and south of downtown Los Angeles for vacancy signs. But even after repeatedly lowering their expectations, they hadn’t found a single thing they could afford.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Nov. 10, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 10, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Apartment: An article in the Oct. 24 Section A about an Echo Park family looking for a new apartment said that the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance limits annual rent increases to about 3%. In July, the annual rent increase was raised to 4%. Also, the story focused on a family offered money by their landlord in exchange for agreeing to move, at one point referring to the family’s “eviction.” Although they moved at the request of the landlord, they were not evicted.

The couple’s growing sense of panic was shared by many longtime residents of their 16-unit rent-controlled building, which was being vacated for renovations. In the wide carpeted hallways, the unlucky tenants compared their fruitless searches and joked about sleeping under bridges.

The families at 1616 Delta St. were competing with thousands of other low-income residents being pushed out of Echo Park, Westlake, Hollywood and other gentrifying neighborhoods, the very places where so many immigrants had found cheap housing a decade earlier.

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“What’s going to happen to us?” wondered Sanchez, 35, who sat in a tiny living room surrounded by nine years’ worth of family mementos. “We’ll end up old with no place to live.”

*

LOS ANGELES is a city of renters -- 61% of its households don’t own the places where they live, one of the highest rates in the country, according to the 2000 census.

Average rents in the city have jumped 82% in the last 10 years, to $1,750 a month, according to surveys of large properties by RealFacts, a Bay Area real estate consulting firm. In pockets like Echo Park, they’ve more than doubled.

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In addition, apartment buildings that once housed low-wage workers have been torn down or converted to condominiums at an accelerating rate. The city has seen a loss of about 9,000 rent-controlled units -- the only kind of apartments tracked -- just since the start of 2005, according to Housing Department records.

Most new construction, meanwhile, has been aimed at the luxury market.

Tenants have some protection under the city’s Rent Stabilization Ordinance, which limits annual rent increases to about 3% as long as the same tenants are in the unit. But it applies only to housing built before the law took effect in 1979 and thus covers an ever-shrinking share of the city’s housing stock.

As market rents have soared, so has the motivation to get rid of longtime tenants, who might be paying half the going rate.

At first, Sanchez and Ibarra wanted to fight their eviction. But a tenant advocate they consulted advised against it. With six children, they were unlikely to win. The owner’s offer of $10,000 to leave within three months was better than the $8,200 relocation fee required by the city, the advocate said.

The best option, she advised, was to take the money and go.

*

FOR nine years, the Sanchez-Ibarra family home had been a one-bedroom apartment on the ground floor of a faded, dusky purple building with a tile roof and red bougainvillea growing wild around the entryway, a 1927 charmer gone dingy from years of neglect.

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Many of the building’s tenants had been there even longer, holding on to rents as low as $450 a month. Like Sanchez and Ibarra, they’d found ways to pack their expanding families into limited spaces: Bunk beds. Folding tables and chairs. Closets stuffed to the point of explosion.

It was a different neighborhood when Sanchez and Ibarra moved in. Back then, gang members battled for turf outside, and innocent residents got caught in the crossfire. One night, Sanchez, on his way home from the garment factory, was mugged by boys who seemed no older than 13.

Then the neighborhood started to change -- slowly at first, then like an avalanche.

On the forlorn stretch of Echo Park Avenue where Sanchez was mugged, vacant storefronts filled with galleries and boutiques. The buzz of their opening-night crowds drifted up to the apartment, inviting people outside into the warm air.

On the corner, a new coffee shop offered wireless Internet service, and laptops sprouted on outdoor tables like flowers after a rain.

From their entry gate, the tenants watched as other apartment buildings were sold, painted vibrant colors and rented to more-affluent crowds.

The value of the Delta Street apartments rose with the neighborhood’s. In 1995, the building, not quite 10,000 square feet, was sold out of foreclosure for $250,000 by a bank that couldn’t seem to get rid of it. Last year, an investor group, Western Regional Properties, spent $1.265 million for the same place.

When the buyout letters arrived, a few tenants -- those with good jobs and promising futures -- saw the $10,000 relocation fee as a windfall. Most initially fought to stay, knowing how quickly the money would disappear in the open rental market. In the end, however, every one of them signed.

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Weeks passed, then months. The hallways grew more quiet. Junk mail sent to vacated units piled up under the slots in the entryway. There was a palpable anxiety, broken by the occasional gallows humor.

As Sanchez entered the building one Saturday afternoon, a mother of four named Magdalena grabbed the frame of her front door and pretended to fight off eviction agents. “No me voy!,” “I’m not going!” declared the wife of a fabric cutter, whose oldest son was at UCLA on a scholarship.

Twice, Magdalena and her longtime neighbor, Abelina, walked the hills of Echo Park together, dreaming of a nice building with two vacancies. But the friends, who each paid about $700 a month, were shocked by what managers were asking. “For a two-bedroom, $1,400! Imagine,” Magdalena said in Spanish.

She and Sanchez talked for a while about what was happening to them. The whites were moving in, they agreed, pushing out the Latinos, the immigrants. “It seems a little bit like discrimination, doesn’t it?” Sanchez wondered.

He was tired. From midnight to dawn, his usual shift at the commercial laundry, he’d loaded mounds of denim into industrial dye vats for $7 an hour. Then he spent the morning fixing an old gray van he’d borrowed from Ibarra’s brother for house hunting.

Hand on the doorknob, he paused, then walked into the usual family chaos.

Three-year-old twins Kelyn Maria and Alan Jose were shrieking and slapping the trays of their matching highchairs. On the thin gray carpet below, 10-year-old Erik and 5-year-old Jerry played and bickered, played and bickered, until Ibarra yelled at them to stop.

Karla, 14, and Karen, 12, stretched out with notebooks on facing bunks in the bedroom, trying to get their weekend homework finished early.

Sanchez sat in one of the cheap dinette chairs lining the living room wall and looked at his wife, who stood nearby.

Each had crossed the border illegally in the early 1990s from different parts of Mexico, two immigrants among tens of thousands who moved into the city’s half-abandoned core during the long California recession.

They met in a garment factory. Sanchez said he noticed Ibarra right away, cautiously laughing on lunch breaks, but it took him months to get up the nerve to talk to her. Later, he offered to raise her two young daughters as his own.

It was a promising time. He’d been promoted to line supervisor and was getting plenty of overtime, which allowed Ibarra to stay home with the girls. Soon, they had an infant son of their own, Erik.

In 1997, the young family moved into the Delta Street apartment. Jerry was born a few years later, in 2001. He was to be their last, the fourth of four children, Sanchez said. But two years later, Ibarra was pregnant again -- this time with twins.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles garment industry was shrinking as tens of thousands of production jobs moved abroad. In Sanchez’s factory, overtime grew scarce and piece rates dropped dramatically. It was harder to get a good job without documents.

In 2003, the factory closed.

Sanchez scrounged for temporary work, then landed on the graveyard shift at the commercial dye plant, taking home about half the money he once did.

Rent control helped the family survive the hard times. Now that would be gone too.

*

BY early April, Sanchez and Ibarra were getting desperate.

They had quickly discovered L.A.'s fundamental mismatch between tiny apartments and large families.

About 65% of the city’s rental units are studios or one-bedrooms, according to the 2000 census. But rental households in the city are relatively large. The census found that nearly half are made up of three people or more, and 8.5% have six people or more.

And though landlords had been willing turn a blind eye to overcrowding in the ‘90s, when vacancy rates were high, the displaced couple quickly discovered that was no longer the case.

One Saturday, Sanchez drove up and down the same streets in the borrowed van while Ibarra punched numbers into a cellphone.

They concentrated on the dingy buildings, where they might have a chance, and ignored completely the luxury complexes springing up across the inner city, where rents start at $1,800 a month.

Still, Ibarra rarely got past a few questions. Either the rent was too high or their family was too large. She found a one-bedroom for $850 a month, but the manager would take only four people, no matter how many times she asked. A single room was going for $500, but when Ibarra gave the family’s size, the landlord just laughed.

Once, she got a recording in English and hung up in embarrassment, not knowing what to say.

On Santa Monica Boulevard, they found a two-bedroom in a run-down building, with no yard, on a busy intersection -- all of which gave them hope. “What’s the price?” Ibarra asked into the phone as Sanchez watched her face. She then sank into the seat and mumbled, “OK, OK, I’m going to talk to my husband.” She didn’t bother to tell him the rent.

The sky turned a deep rose. After four hours of driving across a wide swath of central Los Angeles, Sanchez drifted toward the center of Columbia Street and slowed to 10 mph. A car behind him honked and startled him awake. “Cuidado, viejo.” Careful, old man, Ibarra said, touching his arm softly.

He pulled to the side at 8th Street, rubbed his face and confessed he was exhausted. While he rested, Ibarra decided to walk over to a large beige 1980s apartment complex with a vacancy sign.

“If we don’t find something this week or next, we’re going to San Bernardino,” Sanchez announced.

After 10 minutes, he followed Ibarra into the complex, optimistic that she had found something. But in the dimly lighted hallway, he found his wife backed against a wall, dwarfed by the building’s resident manager, who was determined to make her face reality.

“How many children do you have?” Josie Carrillo asked Ibarra again, incredulous. “What you’re looking for is impossible. You’ll never find a place. Not in Los Angeles.”

Carrillo had only studios available, but Ibarra had pestered her until the manager exploded in frustration. Throughout the lecture, Ibarra focused on a scrap of paper in her hands, scribbling lines with the pencil she’d been using to write down phone numbers.

Then she began to sob. Once she’d started, she couldn’t stop, even after Carrillo apologized and tried to calm her down.

*

A WEEK after her run-in with Carrillo, Ibarra found the impossible: a 1 1/2 -bedroom in a fourplex near downtown, just a mile and a half from their current place. It cost $1,000 a month with a small deposit, and the owners had no problem with a big family.

It would be a stretch to pay the extra $338 a month, she and Sanchez realized. The family budget was already tight, and most of the relocation money had been eaten up by old debts, including legal costs related to Sanchez’s arrest by immigration agents a year earlier.

To make up the difference, the couple decided to supplement Sanchez’s earnings with a home business. They bought a catalog through an ad in the PennySaver and chose a company that said it sold fabric Christmas angels through the mail. They would sew at home and be paid by the piece, Sanchez said. All they needed to do was send a few hundred dollars more for instructions and materials.

One evening, Sanchez brought home clear plastic bags from the factory and handed them out to the children, who began packing randomly. The strain of the past few months showed on Sanchez, who could barely focus, and Ibarra, who seemed driven by anxious energy.

After the rush, they waited, with bags stuffed and three sets of bunk beds dismantled, for another week. An acquaintance with a pickup failed to come as promised. Sanchez eventually disassembled the seats of the borrowed van, creating a space large enough to hold most of the family’s furniture, in many trips.

What didn’t fit was left behind, joining the other piles of discards outside the emptying apartment building.

The new apartment had an awkward flow. Although it appeared larger than the one on Delta, there was less usable space. The living room was too small to hold the entire family at once.

They hated it by the first night. But they also knew they were lucky to have found it.

*

IN early October, five months after Sanchez and Ibarra drove away from 1616 Delta St. for the last time, the old building stood empty, its lower windows boarded up after being broken by vagrants. The building department had declared the space a public nuisance and ordered Western Regional Properties to put a fence around it.

The partnership, incorporated in Delaware, did not respond to requests for interviews. Neighbors said they believed Temidayo Akinyemi of Lakebridge Development to be one of the owners.

Contacted by phone in early October, a man who identified himself as Temi said the property was being renovated, then said he’d have to “talk to some people” before giving further information. He did not respond to subsequent calls.

Many of the former tenants settled within a few miles. Although all said they were paying substantially more rent, a few said they were better off. One had a separate bedroom for her son; another was thrilled with a covered parking space.

But others clearly had suffered, and Sanchez and Ibarra were among them.

Reluctantly, they had settled into the new place, hanging pictures and curtains and taping up a charcoal drawing of Jerry, made for his baptism. Even though they didn’t quite fit, they found things to love: The upstairs neighbor became like another grandmother to the children, and the new elementary school was better than the last.

But they struggled to pay the rent. The Christmas angel business went nowhere. After sending the second batch of money, Ibarra and Sanchez never heard back from the company.

For two months, Sanchez cleaned houses with a neighbor, three days a week, in addition to his job on the graveyard shift. But he couldn’t manage on four hours of sleep. Ibarra said the family has cut whatever it can, including monthly meals at McDonald’s and the 75-cent cups of shaved ice they’d once bought the children on walks.

Ibarra leaned on the wall of the 5-by-6-foot living room, the twins at her feet. Moving here had settled nothing, she said. In some ways, the turmoil was just beginning. Surrounding buildings were changing hands, and longtime tenants were leaving.

Just last month, Ibarra said, the owners of her dowdy white fourplex announced that they, too, might soon sell.

*

nancy.cleeland@latimes.com


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