The growing shortage of affordable rental housing in Los Angeles is reaching crisis proportions among a group too often ignored — poor, elderly Jews fearing eviction or unaffordable rent increases.
That’s what I’ve learned from leaders of Jewish and other social service agencies dealing with the fallout from rising rents in a metropolitan area where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the rental vacancy rate was 2.7 percent at the end of last year, one of the lowest in the country.
They’ve found the plight of older people is not what we want to imagine. We’d like to think of seniors surrounded by supportive family, bolstered by Medicare, savings and investments, secure in the last years of their lives. Rather, their lives too often fit the description attributed to the late actress Bette Davis: “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
Death and estrangement may have taken spouses, children and other relatives. Illness and medical bills, beyond Medicare limits, may have drained savings, which also may have been looted by crooked insurance sales people, greedy relatives or unethical financial advisers. Many are disabled, receiving monthly disability payments that have not been adjusted for inflation for more than 30 years. Some are Holocaust survivors, never fully recovered from their terrible experiences. The poor are hardest hit, of course. But others feel the strain of living on fixed incomes, which may have seemed sufficient on retirement day but now are not.
The rental housing shortage has a special resonance for Jewish seniors who often want to live in Jewish neighborhoods, close to friends, synagogues and kosher stores.
Larry Gross, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Survival, is a longtime advocate for tenant rights. I’ve been interviewing him on the issue for more than 20 years. I asked him about the housing shortage, as it affected Jews and non-Jews alike. “Our crisis is not just a crisis, it is a catastrophe,” he said. Los Angeles, he said, “has the distinction of being No. 1 in the nation” when it comes to high rents. “About 64 percent of renters pay unaffordable rent, paying more than 60 percent of their income for rent.” Angelenos, he said, would need to have a family income of $80,000 a year for an average two-bedroom apartment.
I talked to Lori Klein, senior vice president in charge of the Caring for Jews in Need program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“The housing crisis is affecting everyone in Los Angeles, seniors and the Jewish community as well,” she said.
Just how many Los Angeles-area Jews, a population estimated at well over 600,000, fit into the classification of poor and fixed-income elderly isn’t known. But there are enough for Federation, Jewish Family Services and the Bet Tzedek legal aid organization to devote considerable resources to them.
Their plight was put in the spotlight recently when Vintage Westwood Horizons, a Westwood retirement home, was sold to Watermark Retirement Communities. The new proprietors, owners of similar facilities around the nation, told the 117 residents, 80 percent of them Jewish, that they would have to move while Watermark remodeled the place and converted it into a residential facility with memory care and other senior health services.
As related in staff writer Eitan Arom’s story in the Dec. 16 Jewish Journal, the residents were furious and frightened. Resident Diane R. Stewart carried a sign that read “Ole Lives Matter” into a meeting with Watermark officials. Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents the area, told the meeting, “It’s absolutely outrageous that the new owners of Westwood Horizons want to throw you out on the streets.”
David Barnes, president of Watermark, invited representatives from other area senior residences to a “Housing Fair” at the former Horizons facility (it’s now called Westwood Village) to explain “housing options they have available.” He said, “We are committed to ensuring the 117 residents will have adequate time to make the transition.” He said the half-century-old building “is in a serious state of disrepair … electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning … need to be replaced” and it’s unsafe for residents to live there while work is being done.
Tenants are trying to fight back. Giving them crucial assistance are Bet Tzedek, which for years has fought for the legal rights of the poor, Jews and non-Jews, and the Coalition for Economic Survival. The organizations see the case as illustrating the plight of tenants in Los Angeles.
Jessie Kornberg, president and CEO of Bet Tzedek, told me “we see a very significant number of Jewish clients, some Holocaust survivors. The average household income of a Bet Tzedek client is $1,100 a month, and you know what rents are like in Los Angeles.” In addition to normal expenses of food and rent, “some come to us with a new crisis — eviction — living on the brink of homelessness.”
Gross said the city’s rent control law has covered the units in the Westwood Village facility. But by remodeling and changing its use to a combination of care and residential, rather than just a residential home, he said, Watermark is removing it from rent control and will be able to raise rents — the sort of thing that is happening around the city.
“What it shows,” Gross said, “is regardless of who you are and where you live, if you live in a rent-controlled unit, you have a target on your back.”
And there is no sign the situation is going to improve. The answer is building more housing, with government helping developers with financing. Los Angeles is making a start with recent voter approval of a bond issue to help finance housing for the homeless.
Affordable housing is a huge regional problem. With Jews among the victims of the housing shortage, the Jewish community has an obligation to help solve it.
BILL BOYARSKY is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).