Sur­viv­ing L.A.’s hous­ing cri­sis

Three por­traits of peo­ple try­ing to sur­vive in dif­fi­cult times

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - STEVE LOPEZ

With thou­sands liv­ing in dire cir­cum­stances, colum­nist Steve Lopez tells three poignant sto­ries about cop­ing.

In Reseda, an el­derly cou­ple fret about where they will go at the end of the month, when they are forced out of the one-room-apart­ment they have lived in for 29 years.

In Tu­junga, a re­tired woman in lives in a backyard shed, treat­ing her high blood pres­sure with tea made fromher gar­den and bathing in an out­door tub with wa­ter heated by the sun.

In Ar­leta, a su­per­mar­ket em­ployee rents amakeshift roomin a house that is home to10 peo­ple, and of­ten waits in a long line to shower be­fore work.

I didn’t set out last Wed­nes­day to tie these sto­ries to­gether; Iwas fol­low­ing leads in search of the small dra­mas that play out daily, be­yond the head­lines, in homes that do not make the Hot Prop­erty col­umn.

I trav­eled the 101 and the 405, the118 and the 210, and the sto­ries in­ter­sected as the highways do, here in a land where all too of­ten plans fall apart, and the daily chal­lenge is to adapt, to en­dure, to sur­vive.

“Help!!!!” Caro­line Mal­loy pleaded in an email to me.

Her par­ents, Charles and Ber­nice Mal­loy, 80 and 70, are be­ing evicted fromthe Reseda re­tire­ment home they moved into in1986.

“At the end of last year, the owner called me and said, ‘We’d like you to­move out,’ “says Ber­nice. “Iwas just speech­less.”

Ber­nice worked for the re­tire­ment home as a live-in re­cep­tion­ist and med­i­ca­tion tech­ni­cian, among other jobs, and in re­turn she got a mod­est pay­check and the stu­dio was rent-free. She pressed for an ex­pla­na­tion and­was told her job was be­ing elim­i­nated, and the room went with the job, so she­was out.

“This is our life,” Ber­nice said, show­ing me her mod­est setup at the Am­bas­sador Gar­den on Can by Av­enue. Their one-room-home has no kitchen, which has made for three decades of cook­ing chal­lenges, and a clothes rack serves as a room divider.

A wooden LOVE carv­ing is perched atop a cur­tain rod and a shelf dis­plays a greet­ing card with pink but­ter­flies and the­words: “To My Beau­ti­ful Wife. You’re a Gift From God.”

The card is from Chuck, a for­mer U.S. Marine who now stead­ies him­self with a walker. His wife and daugh­ter— that’s Caro­line— con­fide that he’s in the early stages of de­men­tia.

Chuck worked as a de­liv­ery man back in the day, but nei­ther he nor Ber­nice ever brought home a big pay­check, and med­i­cal ex­penses have taken a bite out of their lim­ited funds.

So what are their op­tions in one of the most ex­pen­sive real es­tate mar­kets in the coun­try, with scant af­ford­able hous­ing and wait­ing lists for sub­si­dized se­nior liv­ing?

“They have to come live with me,” said Caro­line, 40. “I’m an only child and they’re my only par­ents, and I can’t let them go some­where else.”

Caro­line’s rent-con­trolled stu­dio apart­ment is no big­ger than her par­ents’. She lost her job as a book­keeper when the re­ces­sion hit and the newjob she found pays less. And still, she notes with pride, she’s never missed a rent pay­ment— and is fully con­fi­dent that she can af­ford the rent on a larger apart­ment in the build­ing.

So it re­ally ticks her off that the man­age­ment at Talavera Apart­ments in Reseda first in­sisted that she in­clude her par­ents on the ap­pli­ca­tion for the new apart­ment— and then sum­mar­ily re­jected the fam­ily be­cause her par­ents’ credit rat­ing isn’t high enough.

“So what?” asked the Mal­loys’ at­tor­ney, Robin Pa­ley. “Can’t they make an ex­cep­tion?”

I sug­gested that Caro­line com­bine her salary with her par­ents’ re­tire­ment in­come and move into a big­ger unit some­where else, but she said mar­ket rates are ex­or­bi­tant, and hav­ing once lost a job, she fears be­ing stretched too thin.

Her apart­ment man­agers did not re­turnmy calls, and my con­ver­sa­tion with the man­ager of the Am­bas­sador Gar­den was brief.

He­said only that Mrs. Mal­loy’s job was be­ing elim­i­nated and that I should call back nextweek be­cause he was on a beach in Mexico. Then he hung up.

On July 1, bar­ring any de­vel­op­ments, Caro­line Mal­loy and her par­ents will be­gin liv­ing to­gether in an apart­ment the size of the av­er­age garage— an ar­range­ment not at all un com­mon in Los An­ge­les.

I drove high into the hills of Tu­junga, stood at a locked gate on a coun­try road and called out to Agneta Do­bos. She didn’t an­swer. I heard the trickle of wa­ter, peered through the veg­e­ta­tion, and saw a woman in a bath­tub un­der a peach tree.

Long ago I stopped be­ing sur­prised by the­way peo­ple live in Los An­ge­les.

Some make do in cars for years on end.

Some live in con­verted garages.

Some wedge them­selves un­der free­way over­passes.

And I have just got­ten to know a woman who went nine months with­out run­ning wa­ter in her home.

Still, an out­door bath­tub was new to me.

“I bought it for $40,” Do­bos told me, open­ing the gate with a towel on her head when she re­al­ized I was not there to evict her.

Do­bos has been at this prop­erty for 27 years, and the 1994 North ridge quake dam­aged her house. Years later, she signed a deal with the city to have the house de­mol­ished and re­built with a HUD loan, but that plan fell apart in dis­putes be­tween Do­bos, the con­trac­tor and the city.

So she moved into a backyard shed eight years ago to await a res­o­lu­tion that never came, and now the city is evict­ing her be­cause the shed doesn’t meet safety stan­dards.

“They’re go­ing to put me in the street and I’m go­ing to die,” said Do­bos, 67, a for­mer reg­is­tered nurse who said she has heart trou­ble and mul­ti­ple other health prob­lems.

The shed she lives in is about 8 feet by10 feet, with a por­ta­ble grill and toaster oven pow­ered by a line that runs fromthe street. There is no toi­let; she goes to the nearby YWCA. The only place for a small ta­ble is on the bed, and she slides her feet un­der it when she sleeps.

To heat the wa­ter for her daily bath, Do­bos fills about two dozen plas­tic jugs from a gar­den hose and sets the jugs on the foun­da­tion of the house that­was never built. About 2 p.m., she dumps the sun-heated wa­ter into the tub and climbs in.

It’s a hard life, but she loves the home she shares with her cats and three chick­ens, who lay green eggs. Dur­ing those spells when she can’t af­ford to shop, she eats her own toma­toes, wal­nuts, apri­cots, grapes and or­anges. When her blood pres­sure rises or her di­a­betes flares up, she brews teas fromher lo­quats, cel­ery leaves and nopales.

Do­bos seems to have a history of dis­agree­ment with neigh­bors, em­ploy­ers and in­spec­tors.

I can’t be­lieve, though, that the best so­lu­tion is to force her onto the street, adding her to the 44,000 home­less peo­ple coun­ty­wide who have set up tents and built “card­board con­dos” al­most ev­ery­where, in­clud­ing within blocks of City Hall.

Maybe, rather than evict her, the city could ar­range for a so­cial­worker to help re­solve her prob­lems and up­grade the shed tomake it safe for her to live in— and then restart the re­build­ing of her house.

It took 20 min­utes to drive from Tu­junga to Ar­leta, where I met with Reina Ros­ales at a one-story home that serves as a kind of hos­tel for peo­ple whowork low-wage jobs.

Ros­ales’ roomat the back of the house is awooden, cor­ner-cut­ting add-on, and she has to walk out of her unit and back into the house to use the one bath­room shared by nine renters. The owner keeps one bath­room to him­self.

“If I’m sched­uled to start at 7, I have to get up at 5 in the morn­ing be­cause the bath­room is very busy,” Ros­ales said.

She used to have a bet­ter place, but the rent was too high at $600 a month. This one goes for $350. The 48-year-old-works in the deli at an El Su­per gro­cery. The chain of­fers rock bot­tom prices to a mostly Latino clien­tele.

Thisweek, peaches are 79 cents a pound, tilapia is $1.47 a pound, and a 24ounce bot­tle of Hunt’s ketchup is 99 cents. It’s a busi­ness model that el­e­vated the owner of the Mexico based com­pany into the ranks of theworld’s bil­lion­aires in 2013.

“It’s off the backs of the work­ers,” said Ros­ales, who makes less than $10 an hour, which is sig­nif­i­cantly less than wages at many su­per­mar­ket chains.

She had towork last Wed­nes­day, so she­was un­able to join hun­dreds of El Su­per em­ploy­ees who marched in High­land Park de­mand­ing bet­ter pay and ben­e­fits.

An­de­ven with the new min­i­mumwage in­crease ap­proved by Los An­ge­les city of­fi­cials, Ros­ales has to wait un­til July 2016 for a bump to $10.50 an hour.

Ros­ales sends as­much of each pay­check as she can to her fam­ily in El Salvador for ed­u­ca­tion and ba­sic needs.

What’s left is just enough for food, bus fare and the lit­tle room with am­at­tress on the floor and photos of her fam­ily on a dresser.

She said she sticks to her­self in the house, watches movies in English to im­prove her lan­guage skills and dreams of one day go­ing to col­lege.

“I need to find a bet­ter job, and op­por­tu­ni­ties don’t just cometo you,” Ros­ales said. “You have to look for them.”

Last­week, the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court cited an af­ford­able hous­ing short­age of “epic pro­por­tions” and is­sued a rul­ing that­makes it eas­ier for mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to re­quire de­vel­op­ers to sell some hous­ing at be­low­mar­ket rates.

Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti ap­plauded the rul­ing, but he needs to do more than clap. He needs to lead the­way on a plan to make it hap­pen

Rais­ing the bot­tom on min­i­mum-wage jobs is a nice boost, but that’s the easy part.

The big­ger chal­lenge is the cre­ation of mid­dle-wage jobs.

The strik­ing thing about the sto­ries I have told to­day is that they are not ex­cep­tional.

Thou­sands of peo­ple in our city live in cir­cum­stances that are equally chal­leng­ing.

What’s de­press­ing is that we, as a city and county, are so in­ept at help­ing them.

What’s in­spir­ing is wit­ness­ing howthe Mal­loys, and Agneta Do­boses, and Reina Ros­ale­ses adapt, en­dure and sur­vive, their dig­nity in­tact.

Pho­to­graphs by Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

AGNETA DO­BOS, 67, bathes out­doors. Her home was de­mol­ished af­ter the Northridge quake; a dis­pute has stalled its re­place­ment.

CHUCK MAL­LOY and his wife, Ber­nice, are be­ing evicted from a stu­dio apart­ment in a Reseda re­tire­ment home where they have lived rent-free since 1986 be­cause Ber­nice worked at the fa­cil­ity.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

REINA ROS­ALES watches tele­vi­sion in her room in a house she shares with 10 oth­ers in Ar­leta. Ros­ales earns less than $10 an hour and scrimps on rent so she can send money to rel­a­tives in El Salvador.

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