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California Experiences An Alarming Spike In Homelessness


We're going to take a closer look now at the link between skyrocketing rents and homelessness. It's a particular problem in expensive West Coast cities like Los Angeles. A recent study by Zillow showed that for every 5 percent rent increase, 2,000 people could become homeless. NPR's Kirk Siegler introduces us to one working family living on the brink.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: On Exposition Boulevard near the USC campus, bright handmade signs are taped to the exterior windows of a worn stucco apartment building. Stop The Exposition Evictions, they read, Don't Let My Kids Go Homeless. Every few minutes, the Metro Rail whooshes past.


SIEGLER: The train shakes the thin walls of Jimmy Mejia (ph) and his wife, Patty Garrido's (ph), living room.

JIMMY MEJIA: It's not easy living in LA, actually.

SIEGLER: Jimmy and Patty have four kids and a baby on the way. They both hold down good full-time service jobs as assistant managers at a local pizza chain, and they pay $1,600 a month to rent this cramped three-bedroom unit.

MEJIA: Yeah. So, like, you see here? They need to seal all this here.

SIEGLER: There are unpatched holes in the ceiling.

MEJIA: And look, the hole has just come out.

SIEGLER: The sheet rock gave way during a recent storm. There are roaches on the walls. And they pleaded with their old landlord to get things fixed, but then a few months ago, word came that the building was sold. The new owner is going to redevelop it. Everyone's being evicted. Jimmy and Patty are frantic, looking everywhere for a new place in a city where neighborhoods are exploding with gentrification.

PATTY GARRIDO: And whatever we find, it's two bedrooms. And even if we want to take it, though, they won't give it to us because we have four girls plus us two. So they say we're a lot of people.

SIEGLER: And anyway, they haven't found anything comparable. Most places they've seen rent for $2,500 to $3,000 a month. It would be most of their monthly income. So why don't they just move? Well, they considered it. Sixty, 70 miles outside the city is cheaper, but it's a two-hour commute one way. They only have one car. And it's also not easy leaving a place that's home.

GARRIDO: We have our church. We have our family. School. My daughter's been in the same area since pre-K. One of them is in high school, and she's doing pretty good. She's in honor classes. So I don't want to move her.

SIEGLER: Patty Garrido and Jimmy Mejia know they are living right on the brink of homelessness, even though they're both employed and can afford to pay their bills and make rent.

GARRIDO: Are we going to have to stay in our car for a few days? Are we going to have to get a hotel? I mean, we don't know.

SIEGLER: Don't think that this couple with two full-time jobs is some exception. In Los Angeles, 600,000 people are said to be extremely rent burdened, meaning they spend more than half their income on rent. More than 8,000 people here became homeless for the first time last year, and that includes working families living in their cars or in tents.

TRACY ROSENTHAL: We are reaching levels of inequality that we have not seen since the Gilded Age. It's probably time to bring back some of the tactics.

SIEGLER: This is Tracy Rosenthal of the Los Angeles Tenants Union. The group helps organize tenant boycotts against things like rent increases and gentrification. She says it's so bad the government needs to intervene.

ROSENTHAL: We have a shortage of fairness, not a shortage of homes.

SIEGLER: She says the quickest fix is tighter rent control. That's long been a touchy political topic in California, where developers have held a lot of political clout from Sacramento to the LA City Hall.

ERIC GARCETTI: If you want to know California right now, this will make or break this state.

SIEGLER: In an interview in his office, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti says his city needs more housing for all income levels, especially as the economy has rebounded and brought in high-paying tech companies.

GARCETTI: If we don't solve our affordable housing crisis, at the bottom end, this homelessness epidemic will continue. At the top end, the middle class will leave.

SIEGLER: Garcetti says there is stuff happening after a lot of years of political gridlock and budget fights. Voters recently approved a sales tax hike to build more housing and support programs to get people off the streets. And there's a new fee on developers to pay for new low-income housing for people at risk of being homeless.

GARCETTI: We've never had what we have right now. I've never been more depressed walking the street just as an everyday Angeleno and more optimistic as a policymaker.

SIEGLER: Still, all that stuff isn't going to do much for Jimmy Mejia and his family right now. He's the kind of worker that the economy needs. A couple miles south of City Hall, Mejia's starting his shift as the evening manager at Blaze Pizza.

MEJIA: I'm just coming in right now.

SIEGLER: It's adjacent to the USC campus and about a mile from his apartment. A lot of his customers are more affluent students, and they're driving up demand for better housing in this once-blighted part of LA. Mejia is stressed, says he's losing sleep.

MEJIA: I don't try to cry in front of my wife. But, emotionally it's hard for me. Very hard. And I know she cries, too. I know she does. But we try not to do it in front of the kids.

SIEGLER: For now they're just focused on fighting their pending eviction in court early next month. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Los Angeles.


MARTIN: And this note about former first lady Barbara Bush. After a series of health troubles, it's been announced she will not seek additional medical treatment. The office of former President George H.W. Bush shared this news in a statement over the weekend. Barbara Bush is 92 years old and has been in and out of the hospital in recent months. The statement says, quote, "she is surrounded by a family she adores, and appreciates the many kind messages and especially the prayers she is receiving." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
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