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For Californina tenants on the edge, paying the rent often takes more than half their income

Andrew Khouri, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Home and Consumer News

LOS ANGELES -- Even before their latest rent increase, Barbie Thompson and her husband, Juan, could barely afford the Rancho Santa Margarita apartment where they raised two children.

The company that paid her around $13 an hour to distribute samples at Costco often kept her on a part-time schedule, Thompson said. Her husband earned even less as a busboy. So to make ends meet, at times the couple used a food pantry, let auto bills lapse and turned their $1,845 rent in late -- a budgeting tool that cost $50 in late fees.

"Sometimes we were down to the last couple of dollars," said Thompson, who estimated she and her husband spent at least 57 percent of their gross income on rent and utilities. "There was never enough."

And that was before the landlord raised the rent on their two-bedroom unit to more than $1,930.

California's high housing costs have pushed many tenants to the edge of affordability. Even if they have steady work, the cost of putting a roof over their heads demands a staggering share of income.

The problem has been building for decades, a result of rising rents and stagnant income for many lower- and middle-class workers as the economy shifted away from manufacturing to create a legion of low-wage service jobs.


"I don't think it's any stretch that our homeless numbers are going to rise," said Elise Buik, chief executive of United Way of Greater Los Angeles. "We have so many families on the edge."

In 2016, 29 percent of California tenants put more than half their income -- before any deductions -- toward rent and utilities, according to an analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center. Housing costs are considered to be a burden on finances when they surpass 30 percent of income; more than half, or 54 percent, of California renters were paying that much.

The share of renters living on the edge has risen in fits and starts through years of economic expansion and contraction.

Back in the days of "Ozzie and Harriet," in 1960, just 11.9 percent of U.S. renters put more than half their income toward rent and utilities, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. By 1980, the number in California was up to 20.2 percent.


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