Q & A With David Grunwald

David Grunwald is agitated. The chief executive of L.A. Family Housing Corp. grows ever more upset as he details the indifference many Angelenos feel toward the population his nonprofit group serves: the homeless and those one or two paychecks away from being on the streets. From liberal Brentwood to conservative Pasadena, most Southern California residents don’t want homeless shelters in their neighborhoods and oppose the construction of high-density, affordable housing that could help thousands of families. NIMBY is alive and well here.

With the housing market on fire, Grunwald said the situation for the region’s poorest is likely to worsen. Housing prices northward of $300,000 for dinky starter homes and average monthly rents of more than $1,200 might make homeowners and landlords happy, but they have taken a toll on the cab drivers, waitresses and mechanics trying to eke out a living. Many have found themselves living on friends’ couches or commuting three or four hours daily from the Inland Empire and beyond. Simply put: the sizzling real estate market and dearth of affordable housing has made daily life a struggle for some of the region’s poorest.

Grunwald and L.A. Family Housing, which will hold its annual dinner and fundraiser on Dec. 10 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, have worked hard on behalf of those people. The agency, which has an annual budget of $9 million, has provided assistance to more than 62,000 homeless and low-income Southern Californians since its founding in 1983. Last year, L.A. Family Housing served nearly 14,600 people at emergency shelters, transitional living centers and with life-counseling programs and support designed to steer homeless families into permanent homes.

Grunwald, a trained attorney with a master’s degree in public policy from Duke University, has held a variety of high-profile positions in the past decade. In the mid-1990s, he helped establish human and labor rights policies in Cambodia under the auspices of the AFL-CIO and the United States Agency for International Development. Grunwald, 41, later became director of the HIV & AIDS Legal Services Alliance, a consortium of HIV agencies in Los Angeles County.

He spoke to the Journal about the city’s housing problems and what L.A. Family Housing is doing to alleviate them.

The Jewish Journal: How bad is Los Angeles’ affordable housing problem?

David Grunwald: Southern California’s housing crisis is über bad. There simply isn’t enough housing to keep pace with demand. We need about 8,000 new homes a year to meet demand and we are only producing about 4,000. This has put extreme pressure on housing prices — the median housing price for a single family home is almost $320,000. Even with good mortgage rates, a family would need a combined income of about $90,000 to qualify for a mortgage on a modest home. This makes homeownership unreachable for almost 70 percent of Angelenos. An average two-bedroom apartment rents for about $1,250 a month. A family of four needs a combined income of about $45,000 annually to support this rent. A recent study by a think-tank at USC forecasts that Los Angeles will grow by 3 million new residents by 2010. Where will they all live?

JJ: Politicians seems to pay scant attention to homelessness and affordable housing. Why the indifference?

DG: Actually, in response to Los Angeles’ housing shortage, Los Angeles’ mayor recently launched a new initiative to increase the city’s investment in workforce and affordable housing development. This important initiative calls for a dramatic expansion of the city’s current investment in housing from $10 million last year to $100 million annually by 2005.

While this new investment is a critical first step to addressing the city’s housing crisis, most local politicians, in response to hostile neighborhood associations, avoid affordable housing development in their community.

JJ: How does a lack of affordable housing hurt the economy?

DG: Availability of decent, reasonably priced housing is vital to supporting a vibrant workforce in our city. Without more housing there will be fewer people to fill our service jobs as well as the jobs located in our skyscrapers, office buildings and retail centers. Business growth will slow, our economy will recede and all of us will feel the pain.

JJ: Tell me about some of the more important initiatives L.A. Housing is currently undertaking.

DG: L.A. Family Housing is embarking on new partnership with private-sector investors and developers to rehab and build hundreds of affordable single-family homes over the next three to five years. Our new homeownership program will help hard-working families become first-time homebuyers. More importantly, we believe that by turning renters into homeowners, we are empowering our clients to become good neighbors and strong community stakeholders.

JJ: What is your biggest frustration?

DG: Despite all our aggressive efforts to fight homelessness, the problems don’t go away. Ideally, our agency should put itself out of work by ending homelessness. Maybe homelessness and poverty are intractable problems. While I’m not yet willing to admit this, there are moments when I feel like we are powerless to change the forces the that lead people into a life of destitution.

The annual dinner and fundraiser will be held at 6 p.m., Dec. 10, at Beverly Hilton International Ballroom, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For tickets, call Tarlov Associates at (310) 996-1188.