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. 

Streamers from her 2-year-old child’s birthday celebration still hung from the ceiling as Elma Quintanilla stowed the tokens of her life into hastily packed cardboard boxes:

The clothes, books and toys of her children, ages 9, 7 and 2. Cooking utensils. Bedding.

Box after box, she ferried them to the ground floor of her now-empty apartment to the back of a van already stuffed with possessions.

Though cramped, the one-bedroom apartment Quintanilla shared with her husband and children was — after four years — home, their home.

But no longer.

In March, shortly after new owners took control of the apartment complex where Quintanilla’s family lived, they and a dozen other families said they received 60-day notices to vacate.

“None of us expected it,” Quintanilla, 25, said. “It took us all by surprise and we were just — we had to start talking right away, like, what are we going to do?”

Finding a new place, Quintanilla was aware, would not be easy — especially in Long Beach.

Rents are, relative to years past, astronomical, and climbing. And, to be sure, Quintanilla and her husband are not the only players in the cut-throat game of finding a place to live — not by a long shot.

Long Beach, like much of California, faces a historic housing crisis. Rents and housing prices have skyrocketed. Wages have largely remained stagnant.

Newley constructed mix use housing at Cedar Avenue and Broadway in Downtown Long Beach. April 2 , 2019. Long Beach California. Photo by Stephen Carr.

In fact, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, 41% of Long Beach homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on monthly mortgage payments and more than 43% of renters spend as much on rent. From 2012 to 2017, the median housing price in the city increased by about 8% and the median rent went up nearly 10% — both above inflation during that time, which was about 6.7%.

Those and other factors have swirled together, since the end of the Great Recession, to create an anxiety-inducing amalgamation of obstacles for those looking to live in this once-affordable, seaside metropolis of nearly 500,000 people.

It is a problem, city officials, housing experts and residents say, that’s not easily fixed. Long Beach, it appears, is at a crucible.

That’s why the Long Beach Media Collaborative — a partnership among the Press-Telegram, Long Beach Post, Long Beach Business Journal and the Grunion Gazette — has undertaken a project to analyze how the city arrived at this moment, where housing is one of the defining problems of the era, and where it should go from here. That series — “The Housing Divide: Making it in Long Beach” — launches with this story.

What follows, then, is an exploration of the challenges residents — renters, first-time homebuyers and the homeless — face when confronting the housing crunch, and the possible ways in which the city can solve the problem.

“For the past several decades, we have recognized the rising cost of housing and the housing shortage,” said Christopher Koontz, Long Beach’s planning manager. “There’s been a real understanding that we have a shortage of affordable housing. But that’s also related to just a shortage of housing here at all ends of the spectrum — from very low income to very high income.”

Housing crisis squeezing residents

Joe Sopo, a real estate agent, remembers a time, during the 1980s, when a family could buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house in Long Beach’s Los Altos area for about $100,000.

A Craftsman bungalow, steps from the beach, could be bought for less than $200,000.

But that was before Long Beach had fully transitioned from its Iowa-by-the-Sea origins, luring Midwesterners with the promise of good-paying manufacturing jobs, to its current identity — a major urban center, with high-rises downtown and a mayor who hobnobs with the California governor.

Construction on the Shoreline Gateway tower at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Alamitos Avenue. The 35-story tower will hold 315 Òultra-luxuryÓ apartmentsÑa mix of studios, and one- and two-bedroom apartments ranging from 580 square feet to 2,480 square feet. The building will also feature a two-story penthouses on the 34th and 35th floors. Tuesday, May 21, 2019. Photo by Stephen Carr.

Now, homes in Los Altos start at $600,000, with some listings hovering close to $1 million, according to Zillow. The same bungalows near the beach are a steal at $500,000.

In the last decade, Long Beach has also seen a 28%  increase in rent citywide, with neighborhoods such as downtown, Bixby Knolls and California Heights experiencing some of the highest rent hikes, according to a 222-page report released by the city last year.

One of downtown’s newly built luxury apartments, for example, is asking for $2,300 a month for a studio.

The rental vacancy rate, meanwhile, has shrunk from 5.2% to 3.8% during that time, according to the report.

Yet despite the sticker shock to longtime residents, Long Beach remains a more affordable option for high-earning professionals priced out of Los Angeles proper and Orange County, as well as newcomers heading to California for job opportunities.

That affordability for top-earners, though, has squeezed everyone else, from middle-class professionals to the working poor — affecting seniors, veterans and those with disabilities.

In 2017, the most recent year for Census estimates, nearly 35% of Long Beach residents made at least $75,000 a year; that’s up from 30%. The percentage of those making less than $35,000 a year in 2017 was nearly 31%, about a 3.5 percentage-point drop.

It’s unclear, from the available statistics, if those changes are because residents have received raises in recent years, or because poorer folks have been forced out of the city as wealthier ones move in.

But last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wages across Southern California rose a modest 3%; the cost of living in Los Angeles and Orange counties, on the other hand, rose 4.1% in October, according to the Consumer Price Index.

The result of these statistics, sources say, is that there’s a gulf between what average people can afford and how much housing actually costs.

A minimum-wage worker, in fact, cannot afford the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the U.S., according to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development — let alone in booming Long Beach.

“I think that people have a perhaps incorrect perception of what somebody who would qualify for affordable housing might be,” said Stephanie Osorio, director of operations at Jeanette Architects. “I think that people who want affordable housing are people like myself. It’s everyday people.”

Jeff Jeannette, principal lead architect & designer at Jeannette Architects and associate director of operations at Jeannette Architects Stephanie Osorio. Long Beach recently changed laws allowing Accessory Dwelling Units ( A.D.U.) to be build in he city. Jeannette Architects have designed several throughout the city. April 18, 2019. Long Beach California. Photo by Stephen Carr.

It’s not like the supply side of the equation hasn’t tried to keep up with the demand, however.

From 2017 to April of this year, for example, 7,000 new housing units have either been completed or are currently in the pipeline.

But for some, including Maria Lopez, director of community organizing for Housing Long Beach, the question is not how much the city builds — but who these new units are for.

“The more we’re seeing this housing crisis explode, the more people need affordable housing,” she said. “Not just seniors, not just folks with disabilities but regular middle class working families, our immigrant communities who are forced to work under the table and get even lower-than-minimum-wage jobs.”

Renters particularly vulnerable

The skyrocketing rental costs are a particular problem for Long Beach residents.

According to 2017 Census data, at least 59% of households rented.

And because of the demand for housing, many, in recent years, have found themselves and their neighbors suddenly evicted when property owners decided to rehabilitate properties, then boosted the rent.

The city hopes to mitigate those mass evictions through its Tenant Relocation Ordinance, which received final City Council approval this week. That law requires landlords to pay a chunk of relocation costs to tenants evicted through no fault of their own or if tenants experience 10% or higher rent increases.

But these evictions, in general, also underscore the vulnerability of renters, who, if they lose their apartments could end up on the streets.

“You have some folks who are brand new to homelessness or very close to homelessness,” Leslie Giambone, senior director for the veterans and Health Link services at Mental Health America Los Angeles said, citing health issues, unemployment or divorce as just some of the reasons people could end up without a place to live. “I mean, you hear that statistic all the time, that folks are like one paycheck away from being homeless.”

On June 4, the city released its biennial homeless count results and, though not nearly as bad as Los Angeles’ 12% spike from 2018 to 2019, the numbers underscored how intractable the issue has become.

Long Beach saw a 2% increase in its homeless population from 2017, within the margin of error, so essentially flat, according to city officials. But it was the first time since at least 2013 that the numbers hadn’t declined.

And the number of unsheltered homeless people rose from 1,208 to 1,275, a stark difference from the 36% drop in unsheltered folks the city saw between 2013 and 2017.

And the city, for its part, has said it’s being proactive to solve the homelessness issue.

Long Beach’s Homeless Services division spends about $11.5 million annually in federal, local and private funding for different services. And the city’s Multi-Service Center has about 13,000 visits each year.

The Long Beach Continuum of Care system, under the Multi-Service Center, housed 1,115 people last year.

And 60% of those surveyed during the homeless count said they’d been contacted by city employees about different services; 31% said they accepted those services.

Still, helping those who are currently homeless is only one part of the problem, officials said. Preventing people from ever ending up on the streets — 52% surveyed said they were homeless for the first time — is another, arguably larger issue.

“A lot of folks that we’re encountering are recently homeless — people that are just coming out, not being able to stay in their home or their apartment, and they’re new on the street,” Mayor Robert Garcia told the Press-Telegram in May, ahead of the homeless count results being released. “That tells us that the prevention work and making sure that people are able to stay in their homes is really, really important.

“We’ve got to build more housing,” he added.

Difficulty of first-time owners

The housing crunch, though, doesn’t only affect renters and those on the precipice of homelessness.

It hurts those trying to achieve perhaps the biggest milestone in the American middle-class dream: owning a home.

Miriam Filvarof and her husband, Ben Maggin, for example, should be able to easily buy a house.

Maggin is a lawyer; Filvarof, who worked as a counselor on the East Coast before moving to Long Beach, is planning to launch a blog about her house.

Yet, even they couldn’t find an affordable property in an area they liked, the couple said.

The couple had the money for a down payment, thanks to Maggin’s annually bonuses, but each house they liked they got out-bid on.

“I don’t know who’s buying these houses,” Filvarof said.  “But we got outbid by a ton of people who were paying in all cash or who were putting down 30% in cash on a $900,000 home, which to me, is insane.”

Miriam Filvarof and her husband Ben Maggin are converting their garage in Long Beach, into an apartment. Long Beach recently changed laws allowing accessory dwelling units to be build in he city. April 18, 2019. Long Beach California. Photo by Stephen Carr.

Sopo, the real-estate agent, said those all-cash buyers coming to Long Beach are varied: flippers, homebuyers with help from co-signers and buyers looking to upgrade.

“Because of the increase in value of property, we’re talking about a flipper who can come in and buy a house that no one’s done anything to for 70 years,” Sopo said. “So a flipper can go in there and buy a house all cash.”

First-time homebuyers also compete with others who have cash from a recent property sale. Sopo said he is working with a couple whose condo sale gave them $200,000 in cash they can use toward their next purchase.

“That first time buyer has to compete with them now,” he said. “I like to say, ‘Get into real estate as fast as you can.’”

The city and the Long Beach Community Investment Company have for years teamed with the county and other agencies to offer first-time homebuyer assistance.

Since the early 2000s, the city and the Investment Company have loaned almost $50 million to more than 1,200 first-time homebuyers through that partnership, according to a city report.

Filvarof and Maggin didn’t use that program. But they still, eventually, found a home: In March, they bought a two-bedroom, two-bath house, built in 1919, in the Rose Park neighborhood — for $720,000.

Even then, however, it’ll ultimately be a struggle to pay the mortgage every month, Filvarof said.

But they have a solution.

They are, Filvarof said, converting the garage into a permitted studio they can rent out.

“That was actually one of our strategies,” said Filvarof. “So we’ve been bidding on a fair amount of houses that were $1 million or just over and we couldn’t afford to live in them without having an income property.

“When you are a couple and have a good combined income, you think, ‘I should be able to buy a three-bedroom house,’’ she added. “But it’s not possible.”

Possible solutions

For renters like Quintanilla, prospective buyers like Filvarof and homeless folks, finding affordable housing can seem like a Sisyphean struggle: Save for years and hunt for the right place — only to find you can’t afford it. Or, in many cases, get forced out by rent spikes.

That reality has prompted legislators — at the state, county and local levels — to push for solutions to the housing crisis, with representatives in Sacramento introducing dozens of housing bills in recent years.

In late May, for example, the California Assembly passed a bill that would stop landlords from hiking rents by more than 7% in a year.

Matthew Lewis, director of communications for California YIMBY — yes in my backyard — said housing is, and should be, a pressing matter in California.

“It’s a statewide crisis and it keeps getting worse,” Lewis said.

Lewis explained the difference between his organization and its antithesis, the NIMBYs – an often-derisive acronym for “not in my backyard,” referring to residents or homeowners who often oppose developments.

“They think California’s full,” Lewis said, “that if people can’t afford to live here they should go somewhere else and it’s someone else’s problem.”

But despite the concerns of some, Long Beach — and the state — is building.

There are approximately 13,856 affordable units in the city available through some form of public assistance and an additional 150,089 market rate units – some of which may rent for an “affordable” rate despite no legal requirement to do so, according to Koontz, the city’s planning manager.

Still, the number of market rate units outnumbers the number of affordable units by nearly 11 to 1, a statistic that frustrates Lopez, Housing Long Beach’s director.

“When people tell us that the solution is to just build more,” Lopez said, “for the past five or 10 years, how much are we building?

“It really is resounding,” she added, “who we’re building housing for.”