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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

That's what happened after Thompson's rent rose 5 percent in fall 2015.

With the goal of making more money, she said, she quit her part-time job and took on two seasonal gigs, one directly with Costco and another at a grocery store "cutting fruit in the middle of the night."

She recalled sometimes working 16-hour days, but still couldn't pay January's rent and was evicted.

For months, until they found a unit through a transitional housing program, Thompson said, they stayed with friends and relatives or paid $100 a night to sleep at a hotel.

Sometimes, she and her husband pulled their minivan into the parking lot of the Laguna Niguel Wal-Mart. They slept there with their two dogs, while their two teenagers stayed with an uncle.

After rising steadily since 1960, the share of U.S. renters spending more than half their incomes on housing flatlined from 1990 to 2000, a time when rents rose just slightly faster than incomes. The share was also flat in California.

Then during the first decade of this century, the share in both the state and the nation surged amid the housing bubble and weak wage growth. It jumped further in the wake of the financial crisis when millions lost their jobs.

By the end of the decade, median renter incomes adjusted for inflation had actually fallen nearly 12 percent from 2000, while rents were 10 percent higher, according to an analysis from NYU.


Then in 2011, the share of renters spending over half their income on housing hit an all-time high of 27.9 percent nationwide, in part because of a surge in rental demand from young adults as well as people who lost their homes in foreclosure. The share has since fallen as the economy recovered, but at 25.2 percent it remains historically high.

"It sounds kind of simple-minded to say it, but renter income hasn't been going up very fast and rents have been going up fast," said Rolf Pendall, co-director of the Urban Institute's Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.

In the Los Angeles region, the median rent when adjusted for inflation increased 55 percent from 1980 to 2014, to $1,294, according to a study from website Apartment List. Incomes rose only 13 percent.

Economists and urban planning experts said income growth has been sluggish for a variety of reasons, including the loss of well-paying manufacturing jobs, declining union power and increased competition from low-wage workers in China and other developing countries.

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