Undocumented families, aging homes, high unemployment: The root causes for a cluster of evictions in this Southern California blue-collar port city.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Fabiola Favela’s ceviche. You have to trust someone to buy homemade seafood from a street cart, and Favela, 47, was that vendor in the poorest neighborhoods of Long Beach.
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down food carts across Los Angeles County and the rest of the country last year, Favela adapted, taking her knives and cutting boards to a friend’s kitchen. Together, the women, both undocumented, kept sales moving and money in their pocket – until this spring when Favela felt a tickle in her throat.
It was COVID.
For weeks, she couldn’t work. The money dried up, she said, and the boarding house in Long Beach where she was subletting a room left an eviction notice with her name on it on the front door. That was the Friday before Memorial Day.
“They gave me the notice on May 28, and told me to be out on June 2, and every day (in between) was closed for the holiday,” Favela said. “I tried to ask the (people at) the courthouse, but they said I needed to make an appointment.”
Sheriff’s deputies knocked at 5 a.m. on June 2 and told her to leave, she said. That night, Favela and her 11-year-old son slept in a city park.
Hers was one of at least 221 households evicted in the city of Long Beach since July 2020, one of the densest clusters of evictions in Los Angeles County, itself the county with the most residential evictions in California, according to a CalMatters analysis.
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From July 2020 through March 2021, sheriff’s departments across the state enforced lockouts of at least 7,677 households, according to data obtained through public records requests from all but two of California’s 58 counties. Similar data from March 2020 until August showed the state carried out at least 2,000 evictions, bringing the total number of California households locked out throughout the pandemic to nearly 10,000, at minimum.
The number of evictions has accelerated in 2021 – and they are happening despite a series of moratoriums, approved by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature, that are supposed to protect people who were barely scraping by when the pandemic made them sick or cost them jobs, leaving them unable to pay rent.
But in Long Beach, it has been a mostly invisible crisis on the street — no vast tracts of unoccupied homes as seen in the foreclosure crisis during the 2008 Great Recession, no blocks of shuttered storefronts, no long lines for food or jobs.
The eviction crisis is also less visible, city tenant assistance groups say, because 75% of the people they work with are undocumented, and many of them already live in the shadows.
“This landlord would tell me: ‘These tenants need to go back to their country,’” said Cynthia Macias, board president of Housing Long Beach, a tenant advocacy group. “Or that they should be on Section 8 (federally subsidized housing) since they’re so poor.
“Excuse me? Like, it’s a pandemic. I don’t understand how I have to rationalize with you why this family chose not to work.”
They’re people like Favela, who found a new home in mid-June with money raised online. By late July, she took a job cleaning houses. She was supposed to start today.
But last week, her son started coughing, and she again felt a tickle in her throat.
What are the root causes?
Why is Long Beach a hotspot in a county that already makes up nearly half of the state’s confirmed residential evictions?
The reasons are both mundane and the result of extraordinary circumstances, a complicated mixture of failures in planning, of landlords suspected of exploiting loopholes and an outcome of both the predictable and the unforeseeable.
Three major factors, according to city officials, academics and residents, are high unemployment, the number of renters and the age of the houses in this blue-collar port city.
At 11%, the city’s unemployment rate is higher than the state and county average, though Long Beach leaders say they’re optimistic about a recovery.
Renters comprise 60% of Long Beach residents, a number higher than Los Angeles County (54%) or Orange County (43%), which is on Long Beach’s southeast border, according to research by Seiji Steimetz, chairperson of economics and director of the Office of Economic Research at California State University, Long Beach.
While tenants in Long Beach are not significantly more likely to spend more than 30% of their income on rent than the rest of Los Angeles County, Steimetz said, people of color are far more likely to rent. Just 24% of Black households and 29% of Latino families own their homes, compared to 54% of white households, according to city statistics.
A third factor is that Long Beach’s housing stock is extraordinarily old compared to the rest of the county. Eighty-two percent of Long Beach residential units are more than 30 years old, the age at which they generally need major upgrades; 71% of Long Beach residential units are more than 50 years old.
Older housing stock means renters are more likely to be put out of their homes because state law allows landlords to evict for needed upgrades or repairs, even during the pandemic, said Christopher Koontz, Long Beach’s deputy director of development services.
But Koontz said the city suspects some landlords are exploiting the law to evict tenants, for instance by merely installing a new appliance. “The definition of ‘substantial remodel’ leaves a lot to be desired,” he said.
Ironically, just two weeks before the March 2020 shutdown caused by the pandemic, the city had enacted stronger tenant protections, requiring landlords to get construction permits and compelling them to notify tenants sooner about remodeling.
In June, four city council members wrote to Mayor Robert Garcia, warning that “effectively, any tenant or family residing in an older building is at risk of eviction.”
Later this month, the city council will take up a proposal to halt all no-fault “substantial remodel” evictions until the end of the year.
The California Apartment Association maintains that most evictions are due to nuisances and health and safety issues. Under the current statewide moratorium, landlords can evict tenants for a substantial remodel only if that is necessary to comply with health and safety standards.
It’s too late for those already evicted. Eighty-three households in Long Beach were locked out between July and December 2020. In just the first three months of 2021, sheriff’s deputies evicted 138 households, according to CalMatters’ analysis.
Many of the elected leaders who represent Long Beach, however, don’t want to talk about the eviction crisis in their backyard. Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, a Democrat whose district includes Long Beach, declined to comment through a spokesperson. Janice Hahn, the Los Angeles County supervisor whose district includes Long Beach, did not return multiple calls from CalMatters.
A separate city, unscathed
There’s one area of Long Beach relatively untouched by the eviction crisis. Signal Hill, a city that exists entirely within the borders of Long Beach, has had a total of five evictions during the pandemic.
As recently as the 1990s one of the most affluent cities in the country, Signal Hill was founded in 1924, three years after a 600-barrel-a-day oil well sprung a gusher. Seeking to avoid a proposed oil tax in Long Beach, a cadre of oil men drew the borders of a new city and Signal Hill was born — and the oil tax avoided.
Today, Signal Hill is a kind of suburb within Long Beach, comprised of broad boulevards lined with cookie-cutter big box stores, office parks and coffee shops, scrubbed to a sparkle with the kind of refined sterility that comes when cities have lots of tax dollars to spend on roads and parks.
Its $75,000 median annual household income is $12,000 more than the surrounding city. More than 46% of its population has at least a bachelor’s degree, 15 percentage points higher than Long Beach. Looking from just the right angle, on the right street, there are views of the Port of Long Beach and the poorer neighborhoods that line Signal Hill’s south and west border.
It was along that border that Long Beach saw its highest concentration of evictions, and it was along that border that Rasheena McCord made a life until the summer of 2020.
Living on the street
Here’s what McCord knows about sleeping as a single woman on the street: Start at bus depots because they are brightly lit. Make sure some part of your body is touching all of your stuff. Treat anyone who approaches as a threat.
On the good days, she said, she’s able to scrape together money for a motel room. But not every day is a good day.
Before the pandemic and her eviction, McCord was in a two-bedroom apartment with her two children and her partner. Her family was just beginning to recover from the serious beating of her special needs son outside a Long Beach high school in May 2019. Three teenagers were charged, and one 19-year-old man was sentenced to eight years in prison that October.
The same month, McCord, 41, filed domestic violence charges against her partner. When he went to jail, she was left to pay the rent by herself. In the meantime, she said, the hospital where she worked as a caregiver and medical technician cut her hours from about 32 per week down to one eight-hour shift.
She fell behind paying the rent, and in February 2020, her landlord filed for eviction. A judge scheduled the eviction for March 24. When the state shut down at the outset of the pandemic and Newsom issued a stay-at-home order on March 19, McCord thought she might be safe from removal.
“With the whole stay-at-home order, I wondered if the eviction was even going to happen,” McCord recalled. “The landlord said, ‘That virus has nothing to do with (the) eviction.’”
She sent her children to stay with her parents in Los Angeles, but there was no room for her. So she spent her first night on the street. Within a week, she filed for unemployment and looked for help from the city and county.
“I had been trying to get hotel vouchers but because I’m not 65 or over, not mentally ill, not HIV-positive, not at high risk for COVID, which is freaking ridiculous,” McCord said.
She found a new job at a hospital in Artesia with significantly reduced hours, but she said she quit this January due to the concentration of COVID cases. McCord, who said she isn’t vaccinated, sold her car and went back on unemployment. She’s now staying in hotels, with help from Housing Long Beach.
Today, McCord sees far more families on the street, or living in their cars, their belongings piled up to the rear window and stacked on the roof.
“You used to see that, like a family on vacation visiting from out of town. Now it’s actually people freaking living in it,” McCord said. “Sometimes you may feel like man, I’m going through this s–t alone, am I the only person? Then when you see these families, these little bitty kids younger than mine – babies – and the mom’s doing the best she can.
“I’ve never seen this many families homeless in my life.”
California’s eviction moratorium is set to expire after Sept. 30.
CalMatters data and interactives editor John Osborn D’Agostino, data reporter Jeremia Kimelman and editorial intern Danise Kuang contributed to this story.
This article is part of the California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequality and economic survival in California.