High Rents, Low Wages Spell Housing Crisis for LB’s Working Poor

Feb. 23, 2013 / By

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Thousands of families here are being financially stretched to their breaking point due to rental costs that are out of sync with what the average resident can afford, according to recently released city data — and the job outlook over the next seven years doesn’t suggest that will change anytime soon.

Figures collected in 2012 show that 46.7 percent of renters in Long Beach – that amounts to 130,000 people — spend more than one-third of their income on rent, leaving families to choose every month between necessities like food, medical expenses and utility bills.

A disproportionate number of renters in this category are people of color, according to the numbers that were published by Long Beach Community Database, a public service project developed by ReThinking Greater Long Beach, a community-based think tank and hosted online by Claremont Graduate University.

For those renters without enough income to live comfortably, the solution is not always as simple as getting a job, or even a second job. Food service and hospitality jobs are actually on the rise in Long Beach — yet a person would need about 2.5 full-time entry-level positions in either of those industries just to afford the rent on a typical 2-bedroom apartment.

Housing Long Beach, a community organization, held a forum last Wednesday, February 13,  where residents shared stories of their struggle for safe and affordable shelter in a city where there are already more than 4,000 homeless.

The overcrowding of families because of high rent, low-wage job opportunities, and the continued “market-value development” of Long Beach, has created a “housing crisis” in Long Beach according to Housing Long Beach.

“I live in a house with 7 people,” said 15-year-old Rachel Sem, who lives with her five sisters and their parents in a four bedroom house in Long Beach. Sem’s parents and older siblings work to pay the rent. Sem and her 16-year-old sister Mary would like to help too, but their age and school responsibilities make that difficult.

“Sometimes there isn’t much food in the house, or my relatives come and stay for a week — which means I’ll have to sleep on the floor. But I try not to complain, because I know how hard my parents and sisters have to work to provide for us,” said Sem, a member of Khmer Girls in Action, a local youth organization.

Both girls said that the distractions in their home affect their schoolwork and concentration in the classroom, significantly.

Poor working conditions and low wages associated with the hospitality sector prompted the passage of Measure N in a landslide during last year’s election. That measure established a living wage for hotel workers of $13 per hour. In the days leading up to Measure N’s enactment, however, some hotels in the city conducted layoffs, which led some to suggest that the downsizing was due to employers anticipating and avoiding the higher payroll costs.

Nine of the ten fastest growing job sectors in the Long Beach region (including service and hospitality) pay employees low wages, according to the state Employment Development Department (EDD).  Those low-wage jobs, in turn, can result in more people living with others in cramped, overcrowded households.

Most of the growth-area jobs are service-related positions, which pay a wage of approximately $8-13 per hour. Yet even on the high end, a $13 per hour job, worked full-time, would only allow for about $800 for rent, if one were to stay within what is widely considered a responsible housing budget – about 33 percent of gross income.

The average studio apartment in Long Beach rents for about $800, and most studios do not allow more than one resident.

Evangelina Ramirez, a mother of three and a volunteer with Housing Long Beach, epitomizes the housing crisis confronting low-income families in the city.

“My rent is $1,300 a month,” said Ramirez, who brings home a monthly salary of $1,600.  “I have to decide to feed my [teenage] children enough or buy them clothes.”

The average 2-bedroom apartment in central Long Beach costs about $1,500 per month.

Some ideas proposed by Housing Long Beach to alleviate the critical housing situation include controversial mixed income housing developments. A “mixed housing ordinance” would significantly incentivize developers to build structures that have a certain percentage of units allotted to “low income” housing, mixed in with market-value units.

Critics of these types of initiatives claim that the low-rent units would drive down the property values of their own homes or condos.

To learn more about Housing Long Beach, get involved, or share your housing story, visit http://www.housinglb.org/. To hear more testimonies on the housing struggles in Long Beach, check out the video below.

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Patrick Moreno

Patrick Moreno is a graduate of the CSULB department of journalism. He wrote for the Daily 49er and spent more than a year with VoiceWaves reporting on the diverse communities of Long Beach. Originally from Ventura California, Moreno studied photography for 5 years before transferring to CSULB to work on his writing. At the heart of his work is Moreno's love for culture and the arts, but it is through factual and fair reporting that he hopes to transform his community into a place where people can express themselves and continue to thrive. Patrick is also a musician, artist and photographer, beach bum, and capoerista!