Home Is Where the Shul Is

When Sari and Jason Ciment decided it was time to move their two children out of their Pico-Robertson duplex and into a single-family house, they had one major requirement: to stay in the modern Orthodox Jewish neighborhood that boasts three synagogues within walking distance, and was home to their family and friends.

"We never considered moving out of the neighborhood," Jason Ciment said. For him, being able to walk to shul on Shabbat, and having a neighborhood filled with bakeries and other service shops made the neighborhood worth a premium price. But in an area where the cost for a single-family home is often well into the $400,000 range, the Ciments realized that finding their dream house wouldn’t be easy. Their solution? Tear down a dilapidated old structure and built a new house from scratch — a time-intensive but less costly way to stay in their coveted location.

"Buying, we would get half the space for the same money," Ciment said.

As Los Angeles housing prices continue their upward climb, members of Orthodox and Conservative communities, like the Ciments, are having a tougher time finding affordable houses to buy within walking distance of their synagogues — a must for observant Jews who don’t drive on Shabbat. But devout congregations may actually cause homes close to synagogues to have higher price tags because they offer the sought-after benefits of easy access to the community — making it harder for young families to buy in.

Those precious few miles around popular shuls in neighborhoods such as Hancock Park, North Hollywood, Carthay Circle and Carthay Square are not only hip for yuppies looking for a taste of Los Angeles’ urban lifestyle, but also offer religious Jewish families an established community filled with the benefits of kosher stores, schools and social services — helping to keep the flames of a hot housing market burning and leading some to tough choices between religion and real estate.

"A good house in [in Pico-Robertson and the Fairfax areas] can be sold in a week," said Rabbi Perry Netter of Temple Beth Am on La Cienega. "People want to live within walking distance, which of course increases the price of housing."

That’s a point that Larry Harris, a professor of finance at USC and a member of Beth Am, fully understands.

Harris recently moved his six-member family a mile closer to their temple in the Carthay Circle neighborhood, taking them from the "periphery of the Shabbat-walking community" to the heart of it. With four children between the ages of 2 and 9, it’s a relocation that he says has led to "significantly less bellyaching" from the kids on Saturday morning walks. The convenient location of their new house has also led to more invitations to Shabbat dinners and enabled the family to host more popular events themselves, Harris said. Those are all benefits that make the expensive neighborhood worthwhile.

"To participate fully in [an observant] community, you have to be geographically desirable. If you live too far away it doesn’t work," Harris said. But in Orthodox neighborhoods, "there’s limited amount of property available and a lot of people who want it," he adds.

High housing costs in Jewish neighborhoods can be attributed to far more than just religious affiliations, but Los Angeles’ Conservative and Orthodox hot spots boast price tags well above many less-religious areas. The median price for a Los Angeles county home in May 2001 was $232,710, according to the California Association of Realtors. Realtor.com puts the average house price in the Pico-Robertson area at $474,000. In Hancock Park, the average house price is "$700,000 and up," according to Coldwell Banker real estate agent Cecille Cohen — and that price will only earn a house on a busy street like Highland Avenue.

Cohen adds that while the "discovery" of areas such as Hancock Park by actors and other entertainment industry professionals has helped boost prices overall, the homes around synagogues "definitely" command a premium price from Jewish families.

"The people who don’t care about the Orthodox community, when they leave, they tend not be replaced by other people who don’t care," points out Harris. "So these neighborhoods become more and more Orthodox," and therefore more and more desirable for young devout families.

The impact of religious congregations on neighborhood housing prices isn’t unique to Los Angeles. "Whenever there is [an] Orthodox synagogue, the synagogue tends to attract permanent Jewish residents, and as they come in, the prices tend to go up," explains UC Berkeley anthropology professor Michel Laguerre, who recently completed "The Global Diasporic City," a book on religious communities in urban centers. He adds that any community with strict regulations — from Muslims to some sects of Christianity — can have the same effect.

Despite concerns over those high housing costs, Netter said Beth Am has added 250 families during his nine years at the shul and seen an explosion in the number of students at the synagogue’s school. Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, whose Hancock Park Yeshiva and Kehillat Yavneh are striving to attract young Modern Orthodox families to the area, agrees that synagogue membership isn’t suffering — their school has also seen strong growth, and he adds that typical services attract 75 to 100 people.

"It’s really difficult to say if [housing costs] are limiting growth," Netter said. He points out that young families are finding ways to stay close by pushing the community in new, less expensive directions of the mid-Wilshire area: "The neighborhood east of La Cienega has become full of young families that belong to Beth Am," he said. "Nine years ago [when he moved into the neighborhood], there were only two or three families." Now he estimates that number to be between 10 and 15.

Cohen agrees, pointing out that Hancock Park adjacent — an area east of La Brea and south of Third Street — offers houses in the $400,000 range and is growing in popularity as an alternative to Hancock Park proper.

Still, high housing costs have pushed some congregations to radical steps to ensure shul members aren’t forced out of the neighborhood. At Korobkin’s Yeshiva, a new loan program is in the works that would give modern Orthodox families trying to purchase their first home an interest-free down payment loan of up to $35,000 for 10 years, or until the house is sold.

While the loan asks that the recipients attend Yavneh’s services and send their children to their school, nothing is "written in blood," said Cohen, who helps facilitate the program.

But some families are choosing to move out of Los Angeles altogether, forging into areas of the San Fernando Valley such as Calabasas, Woodland Hills or Northridge. Cohen agrees that prices can be much less outside the city — a single-family home can often be found in the $300,000 range. However, he argues that "you get what you pay for," pointing out that areas such as Hancock Park offer more services, and often have the added benefits of shorter commute times and more cultural pursuits.

But for families like George and Julie Schaffer and their 6-month-old daughter Lily, the benefits of a Valley home far outweigh the merits of the city.

"It’s a great little pocket," said George Schaffer of their Woodland Hills neighborhood. "We’re close to temples, we have Jewish neighbors scattered around — if you want to go to music and plays and concerts we know where those are and we go to them. You wouldn’t get something like this in the city for what we paid."

What they paid was $365,000 for a 2,000-square-foot house with a pool, said Schaffer — a home that would easily have cost upwards of $700,000 in an area such as Beverlywood. Those kind of numbers create a powerful dilemma for cash-conscious buyers.

"We did consider the city," Schaffer admits, but adds that comparison shopping between the two areas quickly convinced them that the Valley offered a better quality of life.

While Orthodox and Conservative communities bear the brunt of high housing costs, other Jewish communities are also feeling the crunch. Rabbi Harold Shulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino points out that high prices can make it hard to attract clergy in Southern California.

"If we get a rabbi who comes in, and we want him to live close to the shul, and the prices are exorbitant, you have to adjust their salary and perks. And therefore you have to find the money to pay for it," he points out.

Although housing prices have leveled off in the past few months, finding the money for a first home promises to remain a challenge in hot neighborhoods. But many locals take the cost of Los Angeles life in stride: "I’d be a fool not to worry," Netter said. "But the market is the market."