This article is part of “The Housing Divide: Making it in Long Beach,” a series of stories from the Long Beach Media Collaborative examining the impacts of the statewide housing crisis on our city.  The collaborative was initiated by the Long Beach Community Foundation and is funded by the Knight Foundation.

Mary Zendejas needed to leave her home.

She’d had a good run. For a decade she’d cultivated a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment into a place she could call home.

But eventually, the realities of renting – of her home not really being hers – arrived, as it has for so many others in this apartment-strapped city of 500,000 residents: Her rent shot up from $640 a month to $1,025.

Zendejas, who works for a medical-supplies company, had to apartment hunt for the first time in years.

But she had certain requirements for a future residence, which made finding a place tough: She needed a ground-floor unit or a place with an elevator. A parking spot close to her front-door would be ideal. Her bathroom door needed to be wider than usual.

Zendejas, you see, uses a wheelchair.

“Growing up, I always felt like I didn’t want to be a burden,” Zendejas said in April. “I didn’t want people to see me as a burden because of my disability. So I think that’s what made me want to move and be independent and do things for myself.”

What she found when she went looking for apartments, however, is that there were, and are, limited options for folks in her situation: Either the apartments were affordable but inaccessible for wheelchair users – or they were accommodating but expensive.

And Zendejas isn’t alone.

Apartment hunting in Long Beach, even under ideal circumstances, can be an emotionally deflating ordeal. The vacancy rate is 3.8% and rents continue escalating. But for the 10% of Long Beach residents with a disability – about 47,000 people – the task can be even more daunting, housing experts and advocates say.

Long Beach does not track the total number of accessible apartment units in the city, according to Richard de la Torre, a spokesman for Development Services.

But, experts say, there is a shortage of affordable-and-accessible units in Long Beach – despite the city’s efforts in recent years to build more units for those with disabilities. What’s available, apartment-seekers like Zendejas say, are luxury units they can’t afford or older buildings that don’t have the required upgrades to allow those with disabilities to easily access them. And while those older units, under law, have to let tenants make changes – such as adding wheelchair ramps – the cost often falls on the renters.

Couple those challenges with the lower incomes people with disabilities typically make compared to the general population and, some say, those Long Beach residents increasingly face the specter of being forced out of the city.

“There’s a real shortage of physically accessible units,” said Autumn Elliott, senior counsel with Disability Rights California. “To the extent that if you find them at all, you’re finding them either in new or more expensive construction.

“Or if it received public money and needs to be an affordable unit, there are very few of those and very long lines for those kinds of units.” Elliott continued. “The housing stock that is there is really inaccessible.”

The scope of the problem

Sharina Jones was tired.

Tired of cross-country flights. Tired of staying in hotels. Tired of living out of her suitcase.

Jones, the owner of the medical-supplies company for which Zendejas works, lives in Michigan, where her business is based. But the company, GNS Medical Supplies, also has an outpost in Long Beach.

GNS wants to further expand here, Jones said, but it hasn’t been easy – especially when she’s essentially carpetbagging into Long Beach.

“We have been struggling to expand in Long Beach,” Jones said, “and part of that is not being able to be part of the community.”

So last August, Jones, a 39-year-old business executive with a $2,500 a month budget, began her own apartment search. But like Zendejas, Jones uses a wheelchair; she also, however, has a 3-year-old son – and needed an apartment with at least two bedrooms.

Her search was an odyssey of disappointment: The apartment complexes that had two- and three-bedroom accessible units, she discovered, were already taken – often by someone without a disability, Jones said. All that was left were one-bedroom spaces.

The experience, Jones said, was frustrating and defeating.

Her experience, it appears, is not uncommon.

In 2015, Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health conducted a housing survey and found that nearly one-quarter of adults with a disability reported housing affordability as an issue, “significantly more than the 15.8% of adults without a disability.”

Still, it can be difficult to determine how significant the problem of affordable-and-accessible units for those with disabilities is, specifically in Long Beach.

That’s because data, while comprehensive along other points of the L.A. County-housing spectrum, remains scant – or outdated – when it comes to those with disabilities.

But it is possible to get a snapshot of the housing challenges for those with disabilities by looking at data from past reports by the city, the county and even Long Beach’s big brother, Los Angeles; piecemeal efforts by city officials to preserve some housing units also help.

From late 2015 to April 2018, for example, Los Angeles County added 111,000 affordable housing units, according to a report released last year; at the time, however, the county still  needed to add another 568,000 affordable units to meet the demand from those who make half — or worse – of the median income for the region.

And the gap, according to the California Housing Partnership Corporation report, has actually grown in recent years.

While that data did provide the amount of accessible units, federal standards require at least 5% of publicly subsidized units to be able to accommodate those with disabilities.

Affordable-yet-accessible units are key to those with disabilities. Among the working population with at least a high school diploma, there is a 37% earnings gap, on average, between those with disabilities and those without, according to the American Institutes for Research, a nonprofit and nonpartisan social-sciences research firm.

“Locating affordable units that are also accessible is a significant challenge,” L.A. city’s 2013-2012 Housing Element report agreed.

That report also added that, “currently no central public location offers listings of affordable housing, let alone their accessibility traits.”

That remains true today — and across the county, Elliott, from Disability Rights California, said.

The number of homeless people with disabilities, meanwhile,  has also increased, with L.A. County seeing a 37% spike from 2018 to 2019, according to its most recent survey; there were more than 9,000 people with disabilities living on the streets during the county’s point-in-time count in January. (Long Beach, Pasadena and Glendale do their own counts and weren’t included in the data.)

In Long Beach, it’s unknown how many homeless folks have disabilities because city officials didn’t include that data in its 2019 survey results. (Kelly Colopy, director of Health and Human Services, could not be reached for comment.)

But a larger percentage of Long Beach’s population possesses a disability than Los Angeles city, and about the same as the county as a whole, according to U.S. Census data.

So the demand is at least the same as everywhere else, and perhaps greater compared to some places.

But quantifying the supply in Long Beach is nearly impossible.

Besides not tracking the total number of accessible units in the city, Long Beach also does not have a publicly available system comparing the number of older – and therefore likely inaccessible – apartment complexes to newer ones.

Six years ago, Long Beach had 18 affordable housing developments with units designed for disabled persons, according to the city’s 2013-2021 Housing Element, which was adopted in 2014. The city also had 13 adult day care facilities, 37 adult residential facilities, and 42 residential care facilities for the elderly.

And recently, the city has made it a priority to save some affordable housing for those with disabilities.

Over the last 36 months, the Long Beach Community Investment Co. has helped rehabilitate 112 affordable housing units reserved for disabled households, thanks to nearly $5 million in city/LBCIC funding, according to the city’s Housing & Neighborhood Services Bureau.

In 2017, for example, the City Council passed a resolution preserving Beachwood Apartments, a 46-unit affordable housing development in the Willmore area that provided units for low-earning families with disabilities.

Renovation updates to the building and a $2.1 million acquisition loan kept the apartments from being converted to market rate housing and allowed the units to stay affordable for residents in need, according to the city’s Decade of Affordable Housing review.

But, Elliott said, that’s not enough. Too much of what’s available, she noted, still isn’t accessible, and the newer places that are tend to be expensive.

“The housing in California isn’t really getting built to meet demand,” Elliott said, “and so a disproportionate amount of housing stock is older as opposed to now.”

That leaves folks like Jones frustrated.

She looked at 10 places and none of them met her criteria.

The last one, though, came tantalizingly close.

It had everything she needed, including a pool; swimming – a fun and, for those with disabilities, relatively convenient way to exercise – is important to her, Jones said.

She asked the landlords if they were willing to put in a pool lift for her. They said no.

“It was heart-breaking, Jones said. “It was kind of my last straw and I decided not to pursue living in Long Beach.”

Paying to live comfortably

But even if the landlords agreed to put a lift in the pool, it may not have happened.

Because Jones likely would have had to foot the bill.

Federal law requires landlords to allow changes to their properties if tenants require them because of a disability.

But in most cases, under both federal and state law, landlords are allowed to pass on the costs of those upgrades, such as lowering counters or widening doorways.

And the cost can be burdensome – especially for someone who doesn’t own the property and could be evicted at the end of a lease.

Installing a ramp, for example, could cost anywhere between $946 to $2,840, according to Home Advisor. Meanwhile, the cost of adding grab bars and swapping out taller toilets could run a few hundred dollars.

And in some cases, tenants may need to pay to revert the apartment back to its original state.

“By the time you’re paying your rent and all the other high costs of living in Southern California,” Elliott said, “paying to make your unit accessible as well is going to be out of the reach for an awful lot of people.”

But even then, some landlords may balk at renting to someone with a disability – despite laws that exist to protect against such discrimination – because of the possible inconvenience to them.

That’s why Zendejas – who herself has had to forgo upgrades to her apartments because of the cost – wants to see the City Council provide incentives to landlords.

(In June, Zendejas announced her campaign to fill now-state Sen. Lena Gonzalez’s vacant District 1 council seat in a November special election. But in a subsequent interview, she said housing issues were not the impetus for her running for council.)

Incentives would help ensure property owners “don’t feel burdened by renting out to a person with a disability,” Zendejas said. “So that they don’t feel like, ‘Oh, there’s a person in the wheelchair. I’m just gonna take their application and slide it under all the rest.’”

What can be done?

The City Council and Long Beach staffers, for their part, seem to understand that they have a role to play in helping those with disabilities find and stay in homes.

For one, city officials said, they review and approve housing projects based on the 2016 California Building Code, which requires projects to address a multitude of standards related to accessibility.

All multi-story apartment buildings with at least three units – and condos with at least four – must have one unit, at minimum, with an accessible bathroom on the main-entry level. In larger complexes, at least 10% of units must meet that requirement.

Last month, meanwhile, the CIty Council enacted an ordinance requiring landlords to pay relocation assistance to displaced tenants evicted without fault or experiencing a rent hike of at least 10%. The law will take effect on Aug. 1.

The council also adopted two other recommendations in early April relating to senior rapid relocation. These will create a program for senior-only emergency housing choice vouchers and a security-deposit assistance program for seniors and people with disabilities.

City staff is also still working out the details of a senior and disabled relocation assistance program, which would set aside funds to pay an additional $2,000 beyond what a landlord would owe to evicted seniors and people with disabilities.

The biggest detail is how to fund the program, estimated to cost about $2.5 million annually. A June 18 city memo showed possible funding options. Those options are:

  • Changing the relocation ordinance to require landlords to fund the $2,000;
  • Identifying which general fund programs to cut to make up the difference;
  • Creating a pilot program with limited funding; or
  • Moving forward on the tenant ordinance without the program for one year to allow city officials more time to gather data.

City staffers, the memo said, will keep researching ways to fund the program and will come before the council in the future for direction. No date has been set for those discussions.

But the city estimates that about 24,229 households with a senior or person with a disability as head of household could be eligible for the relocation payments — about 34% of the city’s 70,317 rental units.

Despite those efforts, however, Zendejas and Elliott, said more could be done to better accommodate those with disabilities.

Elliott, for example, suggested cities require developers to have a higher percentage of accessible units than the federal standard, which sits at 5% of units for those with physical disabilities and 2% for those with sensory disabilities, such as blindness or deafness.

She also suggested, in a recent interview, that cities can create website housing registries that list all of the accessible units within their boundaries, what accessibility features those units have and what their availability.

Allowing people to apply for those units via the registries would also help.

“If you’re somebody with mobility impairment,” Elliott said. “It’s actually really hard to go out and try to figure out where the accessible units are and visit them and then figure out that what was advertised as accessible actually has a stair and narrow doorway.”

Lastly, upping the compensation under relocation-assistance programs and providing benefits to landlords who rent to those with disabilities would help ease the burden for both parties.

“Incentives to rent to people with disabilities, that would be great,” Zendejas said. “How many property owners would open their doors to people with disabilities if they had some kind of incentive?”

Living in fear

But for now, and at least the foreseeable future, the challenges of finding a place to live will hit those with disabilities even more acutely than the general population.

That’s something Zendejas knows all too well.

Her search for an apartment of her own, for a way to maintain complete independence, largely failed.

She now shares a two-bedroom apartment – and has for the last four years – with a roommate in downtown.

The rent is about $2,400.

Her roommate, a longtime friend of hers, pays the lion’s share of the rent. Zendejas, who receives Social Security and her income from GNS Medical Supplies, can only contribute $800 a month, plus utilities.

But it’s a chance to stay in the city she loves. But she remains wary.

“I live a very, very vivid fear every day here,” Zendejas said.

Every day, she added, she goes outside and sees construction booming – luxury apartments going up all over.

“My fear,” Zendejas added, is, “Are they (going to) raise my rent to try to match the location of where we are?”

That question, if answered in the affirmative, inevitably leads to a follow-up question, she said.

It’s a question, however, that’s rhetorical:

“Where will I go?”