DEEGAN ON LA-Housing anxiety does not discriminate -- from the homeless who have no permanent housing to tenants in rent-controlled apartments who are afraid of losing what they have, to single family residents of homes near transit lines who see zoning variances that could put their neighborhoods into play -- everyone except the upper-middle and upper classes can be hit by the same thought: “Where will I live tomorrow?”
This is a significant question in a city being “gilded” into becoming a rich-man’s playground, but where half its residents are vulnerable renters.
The sight of construction cranes across the skyline amid a mosaic of homeless tents and encampments on the sidewalks in practically every neighborhood, brings home the fact that Los Angeles is quickly devolving into a city of haves and may-not-haves. As the city grows, terms like “displacement” and “diaspora” have crept into the vocabulary of people who never thought they would use those words to talk about themselves.
Forget density. The operative “d” word here may be “despair” -- not for the newer residents who consciously choose to live in a very expensive housing market and can afford it. Nor for the economic immigrants, high net-worth individuals bringing their money here to buy houses or park their money in housing investments. But for residents who have incrementally grown into the housing market by leaving home to become 20-something roommates or young dating couples in their first apartments or newlyweds looking for starter houses, they are seeing less and less daylight between their housing dreams and stark reality, creating a shadow that is shutting them out.
A single rent-controlled apartment occupied by the same tenant for ten years yields a fraction of the rent a landlord could pull in from the same space when it is re-rented, priced at today’s market rates. All it takes to scramble the rent calculus and increase a landlord’s cash flow is for the tenant to leave. Multiply that by thousands of tenants and you get an idea of the anxiety RSO tenants live with.
Even when a charming pre-1978 apartment protected by the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) is secured, there’s no promise that the landlord will not use the Ellis Act to vacate the whole property, demolish it and replace with more expensive housing. The “affordable” housing that replaces RSO housing is always more expensive than what an evicted tenant would have been paying in the same neighborhood.
Thinking, maybe hoping, that people would want to live near transit lines so they would not need to use their cars, the city has implemented a program called Transit Oriented Communities (TOC) that benefits developers who construct near bus and subway lines. In time, this will create mixed use towers where single family residences or small duplexes are now located, leading to more displacement of renters from affordable RSO housing to make room for market rate housing.
Over a hundred years ago, Edith Wharton wrote “The House of Mirth” about the juxtaposition of the living-the-high-life characters in Gilded Age America and the others in society suffering downward mobility, a chiaroscuro of the brightly-lit “haves” with the “have nots” hidden in the shadows. Los Angeles, through its relentless growth, has become emblematic of a New Gilded Age, a place where, like Wharton’s heroes and heroines, many will fall as others rise.
The homeless are the lucky ones -- they have nowhere to go but up. The unlucky ones are the tenants in danger of being suddenly downscaled. What they don’t know is how far they will fall before they find a new housing situation that will keep them off the streets, even if it’s nowhere near the accommodations they previously enjoyed. In Hollywood-centric Los Angeles dreams can be made, but when they are about affordable housing they can also be shattered.
(Tim Deegan is a civic activist whose DEEGAN ON LA weekly column about city planning, new urbanism, the environment, and the homeless appear in CityWatch. Tim can be reached at [email protected].) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.