Two young boys were playing tag outside when their mother called them upstairs for dinner. They eagerly ran up the concrete stairs of the run-down Boyle Heights housing complex where they live and into their two-bedroom apartment. But when they got to the dinner table, there was no place for them to sit.
Seven other family members crowded around the table, forcing the late arrivals to grab their hot arroz and frijoles and sit on the staircase outside their apartment to eat.
It’s a familiar scene at the De Leon household and many others in Boyle Heights, where too many people often crowd into too small of a living space.
“There are a lot of people living here, since there are only two rooms for nine of us. But we are used to living like this already,” said Maria De Leon, the mother of the young boys and a tenant at the Estrada Courts affordable housing units.
The lagging economy has forced more families to double up and share a house or apartment, say advocates for affordable housing.
“You have more and more … families all crammed up into a one-bedroom apartment,” said Elizabeth Blanley, co-founder of the tenants rights group Unión de Vecinos.
The housing and financial troubles that many Boyle Heights families experience are reflected in population data: there are seven times more people per square mile in Boyle Heights than in Los Angeles County as a whole, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
Concentration of renters
In Boyle Heights, more than 70 percent of residents are renters, according to a 2011 study by UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and White Memorial Hospital. Countywide, about 50 percent of residents rent.
The study found that more low-income housing has become available in Boyle Heights in recent years. In 2009, 41 percent of Boyle Heights housing was designated as low income ”“ up from 37 percent in 1990. Just last March, the Lorena Heights Apartments opened, offering 117 new units to families with low and moderate incomes.
“Lorena Heights Apartments was built to provide a safe, clean and affordable living community for low-income families,” said Yvette Dueñas, community director for Lorena Heights Apartments.
Residents who oppose adding public housing here say it will hurt the community economically. More public housing here will attract lower-income families from outside Boyle Heights, without necessarily providing more affordable housing for residents who already live here, they argue.
“Each and every community should be responsible for their own community and social economic problems, and Boyle Heights should not be the place where everybody builds low-income housing,” said Felicitas Acosta, a Boyle Heights property owner and member of the Homeowners Association. “We need a mix of incomes if we want to make Boyle Heights progress.”
According to Isela C. Gracian, associate director of East LA Community Corporation, most of the people who move into new affordable housing units in Boyle Heights come from East L.A.
But, she acknowledges that, “Current laws do not allow for preference by geography,” such as whether an applicant is from Boyle Heights.
Some local property owners believe that Boyle Heights will become stronger economically if the number of homeowners increases. Martha Cisneros, treasurer of the Homeowners Association, said, “In order for people to buy more homes, we need to stop with the low-income affordable [housing], and we need to fight to bring more middle-class residents.”
Many of the affordable apartment complexes and homes built in Boyle Heights were constructed before 1978 without much upkeep or improvements made over the years. As a result, many apartments complexes present hazards to tenants, especially children and the elderly, said Blanley.
“You have holes in walls. You have rodents. You have a lot of lead in the paint. And all these are asthma triggers for young kids,” said Blanley. “It’s really important to make sure that buildings are maintained so that healthy families are also maintained.”
The complex that the De Leon children call home has many doors and walls covered with graffiti, damaged window screens, and peeling paint.
An ordinance makes it illegal to house several families under one roof, but some Boyle Heights residents and housing advocates say it is not being enforced.
For the most part, the city’s ordinance on overcrowding is “not generally enforced due to the sheer lack of affordable housing and the idea that making folks homeless is not better,” said Linda Kite, executive director at Healthy Homes Collaborative, an organization committed to eliminating environmental health threats in homes.
For now, many families don’t see any reason for hope on the horizon. “It is my dream to buy a decent home for my family, but I don’t think I can, because I haven’t been able to afford it right now or in the past,” said Mariesela Sanchez, a tenant at the Wyvernwood Garden Apartments.