Drills and hammers pounded away as Robert Evans stood in front of the apartment building he had called home for 15 years. Tools were scattered across the dead grass, left behind as workers made improvements meant to lure new, higher-paying tenants.
This was the first time Evans had seen any renovations to 1100 Exposition Blvd., he said, no matter how often he’d asked for them.
He opened the door to what used to be the lobby. The hallway was tagged with graffiti; a film of white dust covered every plywood surface. His apartment doors were barricaded with bars and an eviction notice was taped alongside.
“What they did with all our family pictures ― they just threw them in the trash,” he said.
Evans, 32, was evicted in September 2018, but he came back a month later to find his family photos still lying in a large dumpster filled to the brim with broken pencil sharpeners, sports memorabilia, pillows, blankets, lamps – items that once made up a life.
Evans, who lived in the apartment with his parents and nephew, fought the eviction order that the new owners handed down. They had purchased the seven-building complex for $8.5 million to convert units into housing for University of Southern California students, as the complex is less than a mile away. Evans and nearly 80 other residents were given 60 to 90-days to vacate the building.
By April, the Exposition apartments had undergone a full renovation and were on the market for $3,000 a month.
Evans, meanwhile, is working a full-time job at a construction site in downtown Los Angeles, but can’t afford to save up enough money to rent a new place. Instead, he moves around every night, sleeping on friends’ couches or in their spare bedrooms. He worries that he will soon be living on the streets.
You are putting humans out on the street with nowhere to go.
In Los Angeles, an estimated eight people per day face eviction, according to Matthew Desmond’s research firm at Princeton University Eviction Lab. Low-income residents, who make up about a third of Angelenos, are particularly vulnerable to eviction. This, combined with job insecurity and a sky-high rental market, leaves tenants without much of an alternative if a financial emergency hits ― or if a landlord suddenly decides to sell the building to a higher bidder.
Wage stagnation also makes finding affordable apartments difficult. Today, the citywide minimum wage is $14.25 per hour and will increase annually until it reaches $15. It will remain there until legislation is proposed otherwise. However, rents are rising at a much quicker rate and will only continue to increase. A worker making the minimum wage couldn’t afford the majority of housing in the city, even if he or she worked a 40 hour week.
Renters make up almost two-thirds of LA’s population, and more than half of that group qualifies as “severely rent burdened,” meaning they will spend more than half of their income on rent this month. From 2012 to 2016, the median monthly income in LA was $2,489, while the median price for a one-bedroom unit was $2,371. Rental costs have continued to rise as owners of once-affordable units seek ways to appeal to tenants who can pay much higher rates.
These trends are pushing new people into homelessness amid a housing crisis that has plagued Los Angeles for decades. In one year, “first-time homeless” individuals and families increased by a fifth, according to the city’s Homeless Services Authorities, from 8,044 in 2017 to 9,647 in 2018. Forty-six percent cited job loss or “loss of employment or other financial reasons.” as the reason they lost their housing.
A big component of why people become homeless is housing instability, said Gary Painter, an economics professor at the University of Southern California and the director of the Homelessness Policy Research Institute.
To evict a tenant in California, the property owner must give 30 days notice for month-to-month agreements, and 60 days notice for tenants who’ve lived in the unit for more than a year.
Chung Suk Kim, the owner of Evans’ building, did not respond to a request for comment.
But other landlords have argued that property owners are trying to make economic decisions for their future and that evicting tenants and “throwing them to the streets” is not what they are trying to do.
Landlords are “mostly people like you and me who saved up their pennies, bought a small building and are just trying to do something for retiring,” said Steve Watson, a landlord who owns other buildings in Los Angeles.
But Evans doesn’t see it that way.
“You are putting humans out on the street with nowhere to go,” Evans said. “People who are handicapped, people who’ve had strokes and are on fixed incomes, people who are retired and can’t go to work in order to make money to even afford to have a place to live. And you’re putting kids out. You’re altering a lot of people’s lives.”
The Exposition Boulevard apartments included many residents who relied on Section 8 vouchers, a federally funded rental assistance subsidy for low-income and disabled tenants. With help from the advocacy group LA Tenants Union, those residents were able to fight, delaying the eviction for nearly a year. They eventually reached a settlement with the owner, winning compensation ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to find new housing. But Paul Lanctot, an organizer with LA Tenants Union, said the settlements weren’t enough to compensate for people losing their homes.
“The jobs they work are as street vendors and construction workers,” said Lanctot. “These aren’t well-paying jobs… They certainly don’t afford the median income, let alone the South Central median income.”
After the eviction, Evans’ family moved to a smaller apartment, but it does not have accommodations for people with handicaps, which he feared might become a problem for his elderly parents. It’s too small for Evans to live there with them.
The limited space left Evans in limbo. He works the nightshift until around 5 a.m. When he gets off work, he has breakfast and then tries to find a place to sleep for a few hours. His work schedule makes sleeping in a shelter untenable, as homeless shelters in LA often have strict rules requiring people to in by 6 p.m. and out by 5 a.m.
Some days, he’s ended up sleeping on the beach. When he has time, he searches for an apartment. He pays to fill out the applications if he has the money; each one costs about $30.
“In the blink of an eye, you can be in the streets with nowhere to go,” said Evans. “It’s not fair to people that work, you know? You make an honest living and you’re still out in the streets.”
To Fight or Say Goodbye
In LA’s Koreatown on a sunny October morning, Diana Cruz’s apartment was littered with stacks of cardboard boxes. She doesn’t know where the boxes – or she – will end up.
Cruz, 25, and her 64-year-old mother are similar to the majority of Angelenos living with housing instability. Her landlord served them with a 60-day notice to vacate last August, after he sold the 7-unit building in Koreatown, a neighborhood notorious for its ongoing gentrification struggles. She quickly realized she couldn’t afford the costs of moving, or the increased rent she found everywhere else.
“I collapsed,” Cruz said. “All my fears became realities, and since then, I’ve kind of gone from the first initial weeks of despair and not being able to sleep at night, constantly stressed – now I want to fight back.”
Cruz works as an AmeriCorps member at Occidental College, a liberal arts college in Eagle Rock. Her mother retired from her job as a physical therapist and is now on Social Security. Their combined income isn’t enough to afford the median rent of $1,903 for a one-bedroom in the neighborhood. Although the annual U.S. inflation for rent is 3 percent, rent in Koreatown has nearly doubled since 2015.
Cruz and her mother were still in their apartment three months after receiving an eviction notice and have been trying to fight it even as they search for a new home. Everywhere they’ve looked so far exceeds their budget. They started a crowdfunding page to help pay their legal fees, in anticipation of legal action from their landlord.
Evans and Cruz are the outcome of a changing Los Angeles ― one in which staggering rents profit some but leave others struggling to remain in their homes.
Cruz isn’t ready to give up the home where she’s spent most of her life. She fears that she and her mother will end up homeless.
“There are so many things I’ll miss about my home: former neighbors passing by, food vendors on Beverly, the paneros at the bakery,” she said. “This is where my grandparents settled down, where my father grew up. This is where I want to stay.”
Rachel Sherman contributed additional reporting.
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