Staff Reporter

Armed with yet another study on the depth of L.A.'s affordable housing problem, a non-profit group wants the city to set up a multimillion-dollar trust fund to help build housing and assist low-income renters.

The Southern California Association of Non-Profit Housing is about to launch a two-year campaign aimed at convincing the City Council and mayor to set up the trust fund, which the group hopes will total tens of millions of dollars.

"L.A. is not spending enough money to address the affordable housing crisis and is losing ground in dealing with the issue," said association Director Jan Breidenbach. "Many other large cities have housing trust funds, but L.A. has never had one."

To bolster her case, Breidenbach cited a study released last week by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, which showed that 45 percent of renters in L.A. County would have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for the average market-rate two-bedroom apartment.

About 37 percent would have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for the average one-bedroom apartment. (The federal government defines "affordable" rent as 30 percent or less of a tenant's income.)

The study also shows that a minimum-wage worker would have to work 80 hours a week to afford the average one-bedroom apartment, which rents for $592 a month in L.A. County.

"Those minimum-wage workers who can't afford those rents end up living in overcrowded and slum conditions," Breidenbach said. "In terms of sheer numbers, L.A. has the worst overcrowding situation in the country. And the situation is only going to get worse over the next year or two, as rents are skyrocketing and the minimum wage is staying the same."

Breidenbach said a 1997 report showed that about 25 percent of all apartments in L.A. County met the federal criterion for overcrowding, which is at least one person per room.

A major reason behind the affordability crisis is the explosion of low-wage jobs in L.A. County.

"The growth in the economy is seen mostly in low-wage jobs," said Neal Richman, associate director of the UCLA Advanced Policy Institute. "When you factor in the rapidly rising rents we're seeing today, it means the gap between wages and housing prices is growing, making the affordability crisis more acute."

Closing that gap, observers say, will require public assistance, either in the form of subsidies for developers to build affordable housing or in direct rent subsidies to low-income renters, such as those given out under the Section 8 program of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

"We don't have enough in federal subsidies, and the state and the city are spending very little of their own money for affordable housing," said Peter Dreier, professor of politics and director of the Public Policy Program at Occidental College.

Dreier, who served eight years as deputy mayor for housing in Boston in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said that city set up a housing trust fund about 10 years ago to deal with a severe housing affordability crisis there. The fund eventually grew to $75 million and funded the building and rehabilitation of about 10,000 affordable housing units.

"The business community came to (then-) Mayor Ray Flynn and said, 'Something needs to be done,' because they were losing prospective employees to other lower-cost areas," Dreier said.

But setting up a similar housing fund in L.A. may not be easy.

"There has been a lot of rhetoric around City Hall about how we need more affordable housing units, but little willingness to pay for it," Breidenbach said. "We need to see about 10,000 units coming online each year just to keep from losing ground. And that takes a lot of money."

During the 1998-99 fiscal year, only 1,108 affordable housing units were added to the total in the city, according to Ralph Esparza, director of administrative services for the L.A. Housing Department.

Breidenbach believes it will take at least two years to build the momentum to convince city officials to set up a trust fund. "We expect this to be a major campaign issue in the 2001 mayoral and council elections," she said.

Meanwhile, Breidenbach and other local housing officials are paying close attention to two proposals for a statewide housing bond that could go on the ballot next November. One of the proposals is a $980 million measure by state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys; the other is a $750 million measure by state Assemblywoman Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.

But UCLA's Richman said that unless Los Angeles has a program in place to use those funds, it might find itself bypassed, just as it has been for funds for new schools.

"You need projects on the ground ready to go when those funds become available, otherwise the funds will go to other cities who are more prepared," Richman said.

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