When Rosalina Hernández and her husband moved into their studio apartment on Los Angeles Street in South Central LA 15 years ago, the place was just for the two of them and the baby they were expecting. Back then, it wasn’t too hard to find what they needed: an apartment they could afford with just a bit more space.
But as their family grew, they remained stuck in place. Eventually, six people—Rosalina, her husband, and their four children—were sharing the one main room, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. Today, the tidy living room is also the dining room and bedroom; the bathroom serves as a makeshift closet. “It is hard, because we’re six,” Rosalina says in Spanish, clasping her hands in her lap. “It’s too small for six.” When her oldest son, now a freshman in college, needed to concentrate on schoolwork, he’d lock himself in the bathroom until the early-morning hours.
Her children ask her why they can’t have their own rooms. Her second-oldest son has always had a particular dream: to have a house, a dog, and a tree. “I would have liked to,” Rosalina says haltingly, wiping away the tears. They’ve looked for a bigger place, but they just can’t afford it. “We have to choose between [paying more] rent [for] a bigger space, or giving [our children] food and shoes.” They currently pay $700 a month in rent, something that Rosalina and her husband can afford on his salary as a garment worker. A three-bedroom apartment in LA easily goes for more than triple that. Soon, though, the Hernándezes will have no choice: All of the residents in their building are being evicted. The owner has decided to sell it, and a developer plans to raze it and build a new complex in its place. Many families have already left, plywood nailed over their doors to mark their departure. The Hernándezes were able to get a year’s extension because their youngest daughter has a severe learning disability, but the grace period ends next May.
The uncertainty has taken its toll. Rosalina’s 4-year-old daughter asks her, “Mommy, am I still going to have my same friends? Mommy, am I going to have my same teacher?” If she could, Rosalina would keep her family in that same small apartment—at least it’s home. “Cuatros paredes tienen historia,” she says. Four walls have a history.
Among American cities, Los Angeles is second only to Las Vegas (and tied with Orlando, Florida) in having the severest shortage of affordable housing for its poorest renters, with just 17 homes for every 100 extremely low-income families. The median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is nearly $1,400 a month, making it one of the most unaffordable markets in the country. Over half of the renters in LA are paying more than 30 percent of their income in rent, above what’s considered affordable; for nearly a third of those residents, rent eats up more than half of their income. “It’s not a housing crisis,” says Larry Gross, executive director of the grassroots group Coalition for Economic Survival. “It’s a housing catastrophe.”