Sunday, November 30, 2014

Housing in the City of Angels

   I’m real lucky.
   I live in a technically non-crowded (according to an analysis of Census Bureau data spanning 2008 to 2012, “crowded” defined as having more than one person per room, excluding bathrooms. What I don’t have is a bathroom), affordable (I live in a subsidized housing unit,  in a special, secret arrangement between Skid Row Housing Trust (SRHT, the property management provider) and the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (whose stated mission is to: “preserve its existing affordable housing supply of 75,000 units while ensuring these units are both safe and decent and will spearhead a collaborative effort to increase the supply of affordable housing in LA by 30,000 units within fifteen (15) years [It is unknown when exactly this statement was written, and if this goal was met]. HACLA will collaborate with residents and public, non-profit and private entities to create viable, healthy communities and to empower able residents to achieve financial independence.” Isn’t that wonderful!)) box, or for the purpose of this post, room.
   I’ve lived in this room for 11 years come January 6th, longer by far than I’ve lived anywhere else. 
   I like it here. It serves the few purposes I need it to serve, which includes a safe place to sleep, privacy when I want it, cable TV to monitor the news of the day, and most importantly it is a platform from which I work, or rather, write these posts, all of which that have been written on Joyce’s Take (808 posts so far (with a few duplications) except three that were written at my sister’s house in Bullhead City, AZ) have been written in my room. 
   My room is only big enough to accommodate one person... me. Two people, unless they absolutely had to, could not comfortably live in my room for any appreciable length of time without coming to blows. I do have my invisible cat Herkimer, but he takes up so little space that one wouldn’t even know he was there unless one looked real hard... real hard. Harder than you can imagine.
   I live on a fixed income (dividends from an abandoned uranium mine in Botswana, and royalties from my invention of nonfat lard), and the subsidized housing that I have is the only way I could live in L.A. County without a roommate (I’m basically and sadly unsociable and can’t stand roommates, as they would represent a certain loss of control of my environment, and I’d have to talk to them probably, and acknowledge their existence, on and on).
   We discussed food security on the 22nd, and might as well discuss housing today, since both are equally important topics.
   I sponsor a little girl through Children International who lives in Guayaquil,  Ecuador. Her name is Meivelyn Noemi Cacao Mendoza. That’s a picture of her above. Isn’t she a cutie? She’s 8 years old now, and I’ve had the privilege of being her sponsor for a little over two years, and I intend to remain her sponsor, if she stays in the program, and if I remain alive, until she becomes 18. 
    Meivelyn attends school, and enjoys art and mathematics. She also likes to play soccer with her friends, and baseball, as do I. She is just now learning how to use a computer, which is very exciting. She has a younger brother, Johan Jose, who is 7 years old. She has told me that she likes to help her mother, Cecilia, a homemaker, with daily chores, like sweeping. Her father, Jose is a bricklayer, like Sir Winston Churchill, who laid bricks as a hobby. The median expected annual pay for a typical Bricklayer in the United States is $47,666. Not so in Ecuador. The annual income of the Mendoza family is approximately $3,816 American dollars (In 2000, Ecuador changed its currency from the sucre to the U.S. dollar following a banking crisis)... quite a difference. Well, what does this demonstrate Rick, considering a host of variables could and do have huge differences in comparison of the two countries? Well you’re absolutely right, whoever asked that question. There could be a difference in the training involved between a bricklayer in the U.S. and a bricklayer in Ecuador, quality of life differences, differences in the cost of staples such as food and housing, and so on, that could possibly affect standard wages. Be that as it may, Jose’s income, it would seem, is not very great within his own country. 
   Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador, with an estimated 2010 population of 2,710, 915.3 people. In the United States ideally the Mendoza family would live in their own home, or a three bedroom apartment. The average monthly disposable salary in Ecuador (after tax) is $359.04, so Jose is making $41.00 a month less than the average at $318.00 a month. 
   The average monthly cost of a 3 bedroom apartment outside of the city in Ecuador is $543.91 (as of November 2014). The average monthly cost of a 1 bedroom apartment in the city is $342.00. So a 1 bedroom apartment isn’t even affordable to those who make an average salary (not even counting for the cost of  food, utilities, clothing, cable, etc.), after taxes, let alone Jose, who makes less than the average salary. Accordingly, the Mendoza family lives in what is described as a “ multi-use room,” constructed of split cane and concrete block, the floor made of wood and concrete, the roof made of corrugated metal, most likely mild steel (as opposed to spicy steel). Their room enjoys running water, regulated electricity, whatever that means, a portable gas stove, and 3 wooden beds. 
   The end result being two adults and two children sharing what amounts to a studio apartment in the United States, the mom and dad sharing one bed, and the two kids having their own. 
   Some in the U.S. would think that the Mendoza living arrangement was fairly tough, and somewhat confining, even claustrophobic, akin to an entire family living within the confines of my tiny room. 
   And they would be right, and the situation will only get tougher as the children get older.
   During my first 12 years of life, or so, I lived in a 2 bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, which is a neighborhood north of Hollywood, and northwest of downtown Los Angeles where I currently live. I shared a bedroom with my younger sister, my parents had the master bedroom. We also had a living room with an adjoining kitchen, and two bathrooms. It was comfortable, I didn’t feel cramped or inconvenienced in any way. It was what my father could afford, being the owner of a nearby liquor store located across the street from the famous Universal Studios.
   After my father passed away my mother eventually remarried to a life insurance salesman, and we moved into a 4 bedroom house in Northridge, where the earthquakes are. There my sister and I had our own bedrooms, which I have to admit was really cool, the first time in my life that I had a space to myself.
   I would listen to Beatles music in there, and perform other nefarious activities, as required of a teenager.
   Like I’m saying, I was, and am lucky.
   Many people, I’d say the majority by far, aren’t as lucky as I am.
   Okay, why wouldn’t I be able to live in Los Angeles with out a roommate? Good question!
   Because, as former presidential candidate Jimmy McMillan III has said repeatedly, “The rent is too damn high!”
   Just as it is in Ecuador.
   The difference between Guayaquil and L.A. being population density. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
   According to the good folks at NUMBEO, the average monthly cost of a 1 bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is $1,667.96 (with a range of between $1,283.00 and $2,000.00). The average cost of a 1 bedroom apartment outside of the city, in North Hollywood, or Northridge let’s say, is $1,159.33 (with a range between $900.00 and $1,400.00). The average cost of a 3 bedroom apartment in the city, right around where I live, is $2,805.88 (with a range between $2,200.00 and $3,500.00). I won’t even go into buying a house.
   The average (and I agree, averaging probably isn’t the best way to compare this information, median being preferable, but averaging is what I’ve got) disposable monthly income in Los Angeles is 3,686.14, after tax. 
   There exists such a thing as what is known as the 30% rule (some say 28% or even 25%), which states that no more than 30% of one’s income should go towards housing costs (and there’s some controversy with this rule. David Bieri, assistant professor at the University of Michigan says, “It’s essentially an arbitrary number. It creates more distortions than it actually solves.” And currently almost 41 million U.S. households spend more than 30% of their income on housing)
   30% of the L.A. average monthly income is $1,105.00. Clearly even the cost of a 1 bedroom apartment within the city is beyond the means of the average individual, hence the need to share a living space with a roommate, let’s say. Or a significant other, or spouse, or a wealthy invisible cat. My lovely friend and ex-case manager Erin, who once worked for SRHT, at one time had to share a flat with three other girls (which is to say the good folks at SRHT all need a raise). 
   So one actually needs to be rather affluent in order to rent an apartment in this city. 
   The majority of people in this city are not affluent.
   Last April the second part of the Los Angeles 2020 Commission Report was published at the behest of the Los Angeles City Council. It revealed that 40 percent of families either make poverty wages or are unemployed. In the author’s own words, four out of every ten residents live “in what only can be called misery.”
   Gabriel Black writing for states, “For a family of four, the federal poverty line is set at $23,850. This is a grossly inadequate income. In Los Angeles, rents and living costs are especially high. An inexpensive two-bedroom apartment in a working class area can easily cost $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Therefore, the assertion that 40 percent of the area’s population live in misery, as extraordinary as it is, sharply underestimates the proportion of city residents struggling to make ends meet. Los Angeles, the report notes, has suffered greatly in the past few years. The percentage of people living below the derisory official poverty line in Los Angeles County has climbed to 19.1 percent. According to the report, ‘the poverty rate in Los Angeles is higher than any other major American city, and the number is rising.’”
   Take a look at the first chart above, provided to me by the lovely people at the Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing, or SCANPH (pronounced “scanph”) which clearly indicates a growing gap between the rising cost of housing and the decline of real income.
   No matter what some may tell you this is not a good thing.
   Household income is an economic measure that differs from the average disposable monthly income amount in that it takes into account an entire household (as defined by the Census bureau, “the income of every resident over the age of 15, including wages and salaries, unemployment insurance, disability payments, child support payments received, regular rental receipts, as well as any personal business, investment, or other kinds of income received routinely.”), with more than one individual adding to the total monthly or annual amount of income the household takes in, and is a twidge higher than individual income. Median household income was $51,939 last year, compared to $51,759 in 2012, more or less unchanged. However, it has trended down since the financial crisis of 2007/2008, falling 8% from the pre-recession peak of $56,436, and is well below the 1999 record of $56,895.
   Even with this increased measure the ability of a median household to afford a 1 bedroom apartment in Los Angeles is just barely attainable, and does not take into account matters of “crowding.”
   Indeed, the wage and benefit growth of the vast majority of Americans, including white-collar and blue-collar workers, and those with and without a college degree, has stagnated since the 1990‘s, while corporate profits are at historic highs. It would appear that the only people experiencing real income growth are those who don’t need it, the wealthiest among us, the richest 1% of the population. 
   Yet, American households have increasingly turned to the rental market for their housing, especially after the beginning of the Great Recession. From 31% in 2004, the renter share of all US households increased to 35% in 2012, bringing the total number to 43 million by early 2013 (according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)). Many factors have helped to contribute to this trend. Immigration, affordability, home foreclosures, Gypsy prevalence, sustained unemployment, etc. Los Angeles has the most renters in the United States  and the least affordable rents (one-third of renters flat out ignore the 30% rule and spend more than half their income on rent). 
   Those who lost their homes, millions of Americans, after and during the financial crisis, flooded the rental markets. "With more people trying to get into same number of units you get an incredible pressure on prices," says Shaun Donovan, the former secretary of HUD for the Obama administration.
   And the pressure Mr. Donovan is talking about is upward in nature, creating a sellers market, with demand far exceeding supply. Under these conditions the seller, or landlord, due to the scarcity of available rental units, can demand higher prices.  
   Economics 101.
    Take a look at the third chart above, also supplied by SCANPH, which illustrates the discrepancy between the amount of, in this case, low, and extremely low income households in Los Angeles County, compared to available housing that they may be able to afford, or what we like to call, affordable housing, often subsidized housing through programs administered by agencies like HUD. Me and Herkimer live in affordable housing for instance (in my case partially subsidized by the cities Housing Authority, which in turn receives funds from HUD). 
   Alright, we have a sellers market here in Los Angeles, and the rest of the country for that matter. As we’ve seen, individuals who are not affluent will have a hard time finding housing without a second income earner also living with them to share expenses. Low income, and extremely low income families will have a harder time finding suitable housing for their entire families, and often resort to living in crowded conditions, and severe crowded conditions in order to get by.
  Exasperating the situation is the fact that nearly two thirds of all the City's apartments are either studios or 1 bedrooms, leaving only one third with 2 or more bedrooms even if one could afford them. 
   That’s true. L.A. an Orange Counties are epicenters of overcrowded housing. 
   I mean look at the second picture above (by Christina House, for the L.A. Times). That looks crowded to me. 
   It looks just as bad or worse than the old “Star Trek” episode that dealt with overcrowding, “The Mark of Gideon.” 
   The article shines a little light on Monica and the other 6 members of her family that inhabit a room about the size of a two car garage, sharing a kitchen and one bathroom. They live in South-Central Los Angeles, described as “one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the country. Nearly 45% of the homes there are considered ‘crowded.’ Almost one home in six is severely crowded, with more than two people per room.”
   "This is an example of poverty that can go unseen in our communities," said Jason Mandell, United Way of Greater Los Angeles spokesman. "It's easy to miss if you're not paying attention."
   Here is an interactive map you can play with that emphasizes the dire nature of overcrowding in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas. 
   Monica and one of her brothers is in high school. Imagine trying to study in such crowded conditions, or do anything else for that matter. A life without some semblance of the availability of privacy may be a form of torture.   
   It’s not hard to believe that overcrowding can have many detrimental effects upon those living within those conditions, anyone, but research shows it adversely affects children to a greater degree, as they are experiencing developmental issues.  
   Gary Evens, a Cornell University environmental and developmental psychologist, is one of many who have conducted studies examining the effects of the physical environment on children’s well being and development. 
   For instance children’s reading abilities, cognitive development, physiological outlook, and motivational factors are effected by exposure to noise. Kids exposed to on going loud noise also experience a rise in blood pressure and stress hormones. And it’s stressful enough just being a kid. Crowding has an effect on interpersonal behaviors (getting along with others), mental health, motivational factors, cognitive development, and biological functions. Population density, or number of people per room is the crucial variable for measuring the effects of crowding on a child’s development. Families living in high-rise housing as opposed to single family units, have fewer relationships with neighbors, resulting in less social support. Elementary school aged children who live in crowded conditions seem to experience patterns of withdrawal from social settings, higher levels of psychological distress, and depression. Overcrowding increases chronic illnesses, respiratory infections, more than likely transmission of disease between other children and adults. Parents in crowded apartments or homes are less responsive to their children, which can strain the relationships they have with their kids, negatively influencing social, emotional, and biological attributes in said children. And so on.
   All of which points to one conclusion... living in crowded, or extreme crowded conditions, like Monica and her family, is not good for anybody involved.
   Yet 32 neighborhoods in Supervised District 1, represented by Board of County Supervisor Gloria Molina, are in the top 1/2% of communities for housing overcrowding nationally.
   30 neighborhoods in Supervised District 2, represented by Mark Ridley-Thomas, are in the top 1/2% of communities for housing overcrowding nationally.
   20 Neighborhoods in Supervised District 3, represented by newly elected Sheila Kuehl, are in the top 1% of communities for housing overcrowding nationally.
   23 neighborhoods in Supervised District 4, represented by Don Knabe, are in the top 1% of communities for housing overcrowding nationally.
   And 15 neighborhoods in Supervised District 5, represented by Michael Antonovich, are in the top 1% of communities for housing overcrowding nationally.
   One of these neighborhoods is the downtown area of Los Angeles... my home.
   That’s 120 out of approximately 189 districts, unincorporated areas, or neighborhoods in Los Angeles County that suffer from overcrowding (Los Angeles County consists of 88 cities officially) . 
   The situation is dire.
   Of course this problem is not restricted to Los Angeles, but effects the entire nation in one way of another. Here are a few examples in Chicago, Boston, and New York.
   Still any type of housing is preferable to being homeless. Trust me, being homeless is boring, lonely, degrading, and dangerous, for both individuals and families. There are many resources in the downtown area of Los Angeles that attempt to help the homeless, and provide services, such as providing meals and referrals, which is why those without any form of housing tend to congregate in the downtown/Skid Row area. But having one’s own home, apartment, room, whatever, is much preferable to living on the streets, and is actually more cost effective as well.
   Those living in the streets tend to use publicly funded services, such as mental health facilities and hospitals (which in Los Angeles would be the Twin Towers Jail Complex), other hospitals, shelters, substance abuse facilities, etc. A study in Illinois observed 177 supportive housing residents during a 4 year period. Analysis compared the 2 years before they entered supportive housing with the 2 years after. There was a 39 percent reduction in the total cost of services from pre- to post-supportive housing with an overall savings of $854,477. This was an average savings of $4,828 per resident for the 2-year time period or $2,414 per resident, per year.
   Accordingly, those in authority within local and state government should be in favor of doing everything possible to increase the amount of affordable housing in the city and state, not only for humanitarian and political considerations, but because affordable housing simply saves the county and state money.     
   That does not appear to be the case, however. Funds for affordable housing seem to be dwindling each year. 
   Take a look at the last chart above. Money from housing bonds like Proposition 1C, (the successor to the 2002 measure known as Proposition 46, and part of a $37.3 billion package of four public-works bonds put on the ballot by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the State Legislature), is drying up. From $247 million annually at the beginning of the 2007/2008 financial crisis, down to $10 million during the last two years, a 96% reduction in funds. There was no housing initiative on the November 4th ballot to provide relief, and besides, California voters have a history of wanting and appreciating increased services, but are reluctant to approve bond measures that will pay for them.  
   Redevelopment agencies that had provided funding simply don’t exist anymore after a 2012 California Supreme Court decision dissolved them. Gov. Brown argued that the state could no longer afford redevelopment during a budget crisis, and the court sided with him rather than the redevelopment agencies and cities. Accordingly $251 million dollars annually that had been allocated for affordable housing projects is no longer available. 
     Federal funds... well, there’s certain political party in Washington D.C., and I’m not naming names but it’s not the democrats, that philosophically has issues with providing funds for social programs, like food stamps, unemployment insurance, and affordable housing. I’m almost positive that if they could they would do away with these programs altogether, stating they just make people dependent on the government, which discourages these same people from finding work, if they’re unemployed, or better jobs, and thus providing for themselves. In their world view they are doing these people a big favor by pushing them in the direction of self sufficiency. They won’t pass any job legislation mind you, that would help these people become self sufficient, for various political reasons. These poor, disadvantaged people just have to work the problem and figure out how to get good paying, living wage jobs when there are none to be had, or very few available. 
   So, programs like the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), and The HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME), which provides formula grants to States and localities which  communities then use for activities that  include building, buying, and/or rehabilitating affordable housing for rent, or homeownership, or providing direct rental assistance to low-income people, are diminishing. CDBG funds for affordable housing in Los Angeles that equaled about $158 million in 2007/2008, now equals around $116 million, and HOME funds have experienced a 50% decrease during the same period, from $76 million annually to $38. In total with just these four programs, more than half a billion dollars ($567.620,000 to be almost exact) has been lost for affordable housing in Los Angeles County.
   Alright we know the problems with housing exist, and will only get worse if not dealt with in an effective manner. So what do we do about it?
   Collecting recyclables probably is not the answer. That is labor intensive, takes too long, and more trouble than it’s worth. Armed rebellion? No. That’s probably against the law. 
   It has been suggested that we get our politicians, like the County Board of Supervisors for instance, to get working for affordable housing in the county. They all say they’re for affordable housing, and some actually are doing something about it. 
   Supervisor Gloria Molina announced last year the creation of a $63 million affordable housing trust fund (co-authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas) using remaining dollars from the now defunct Community Redevelopment Agencies, which would be a small part of the county’s $25 billion Fiscal Year 2013-2014 budget. 
   But much more needs to be done. $63 million hardly makes up for a half billion shortfall. 
   The answer seems to be the same though. A grassroots movement must be developed and maintained to keep pressure on local, state, and federal authorities to maintain sufficient funding towards affordable housing goals in L.A. and the rest of the country. Perhaps a professional lobbyist, or lobbying firm should be hired in order to attain this end. If the fossil fuel industry can do it, why can’t we?  
   Or perhaps you have some ideas, dear readers. Please leave a comment if you do. I’d sincerely like to hear from you.
   Or contact the good folks at SCANPH. I’m sure they’d like to hear from you as well.
    I was invited to a November 21st meeting sponsored by the Residents United Network (“In early 2013, representatives of nonprofit affordable-home developers, resident-service providers, and a variety of advocacy organizations held a series of meetings to discuss the vision and reality of developing a first-of-its-kind, statewide resident base of power in California. These meetings resulted in the creation of the Residents United Network (RUN), which was unveiled in April  2014 at Housing California's Annual Conference.”), ostensibly to to discuss the results of a RUN initiated voter drive held before the November 4th mid-term elections.
      Pizza was involved so I of course attended. And it was good, both the meeting and the pizza. We did discuss various techniques used to get people registered to vote, to educate mostly low income residents on voting in general, and to sign them up to vote by mail specifically. I personally had a hand in getting 14 previously non-voters registered. Hooray for me.
   At one point the meeting’s focus changed dramatically to that of affordable housing in Los Angeles, with the arrival of the lovely and talented Lisa Payne, the Policy Director for SCANPH. We spent the entire last half of the meeting discussing affordable housing in L.A., the evaporating funds regularly allocated for affordable housing, and possible strategies for regaining that lost revenue.      
   At another point Daniel Rizik-Baer, Skid Row Housing Trust’s dashing young Community Relations Manager, with whom I am associated with through the SRHT Ambassador Program (yes it’s true, I am an ambassador, and can be referred to as Ambassador Rick from here on), and who knows the difference between average, median, and mode... and furthermore who cares, volunteered me to possibly write a piece on affordable housing in Los Angeles via this blog. Well, until I get around to doing that I offer the above for the time being, and hope it will suffice in shedding a little light on this significant problem we face here in Los Angeles, the rest of the country, and as we’ve seen, the world.
   And now I must go out and play soccer with my friends. So long, and may the Housing Force be with you.

Addendum: 12-12-14: NYC Luxury building installs "Poor Fences" to seperate middle income residents from wealthy resident
Addendum 6-30-15: Economic Apartheid in America
Addendum 6-30-15: Affordable Housing Crisis Grows Across the Country as Apartment Rents Skyrocket
Addendum: 7-28-15: Poor diet lowers intelligence in kids
Addendum: 7-29-15: Housing crisis just getting worse

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