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Report: In LA, high housing prices make it hard to afford basic needs

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Nearly 40 percent of Angelenos struggle to make ends meet

View of homes on hill in LA
Nearly half of LA residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Matt Conrod | Shutterstock

It’s not a secret that housing prices are steep in Los Angeles, but a new report from the United Ways of California shows that those costs make it exceedingly difficult for many locals to afford other basic needs like food and healthcare.

According to the report, released last week, nearly 1 million households in Los Angeles County—or 38 percent of the population—bring in less than what’s needed to meet a simple budget of essential items.

Not coincidentally, the residents of nearly half of LA County’s households spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just over 16 percent of LA County residents live in poverty, but Peter Manzo, president of the United Ways of California, says that statistic doesn’t reflect the true number of families struggling to make ends meet.

“We’re asking, ‘what does it look like if a family is doing well?’” Manzo tells Curbed.

To the United Way, that means covering the costs of housing, healthcare, food, transportation, and childcare—on top of any taxes and miscellaneous expenses.

The organization calls this the “real cost measure” for a California household, and in LA, many residents earn far below that threshold.

Housing costs are a key part of the issue, says Manzo. In LA County, families are often stuck paying upwards of $17,880 per year on housing—more than half what residents can expect to bring in through two minimum wage jobs.

“If we could somehow wave a wand and make it so that no one spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing, it would make a huge difference,” Manzo says.

Statewide, about one-third of households don’t earn enough to meet those basic needs, but in the poorest parts of LA County, as many as 82 percent bring in less than the real cost measure.

Things are especially bleak for those with children. By the United Way’s estimation, nearly two-thirds of households with a child under the age of six struggle to make ends meet—and more than 75 percent of single mothers earn less than the real cost measure.

Manzo notes that many residents try to save money on housing by moving in with friends or family members. This offers financial relief, but Manzo argues it also leads to overcrowding in small households and, in some cases, unsafe living conditions.

Pricey rents also serve to further diminish LA’s low rate of homeownership. With so many families struggling to meet basic costs, saving up to buy a house becomes almost impossible, says Manzo.

With little savings, many families also can’t weather an emergency event or the loss of a job. That contributes to LA’s ongoing homelessness crisis, when residents can’t cover their rent while hunting for new work opportunities.

Manzo says there’s no quick fix for these issues, but argues that it’s important for California residents and elected officials to be aware of the magnitude of the problem.

“The poverty level [for LA County] is bad already,” he says. “But the truth is actually worse.”