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Storytelling series follows L.A. seniors as they grapple with rising rents and threat of eviction

Storytelling series follows L.A. seniors as they grapple with rising rents and threat of eviction

Picture of Ruxandra Guidi
A group of Chinese and Vietnamese elders in Lincoln Heights who are facing eviction.
A group of Chinese and Vietnamese elders in Lincoln Heights who are facing eviction, as they meet with volunteers from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development. (Photo by Bear Guerra)

Few other cities hold the promise of the American melting pot as steadfastly as Los Angeles. Over its sprawling 503 square miles, first-generation immigrants have found refuge over the past century while their descendants have often thrived in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, Boyle Heights, Highland Park or Lincoln Heights.

These neighborhoods have catered to working-class immigrant communities with local foods, services available in various languages and a good stock of affordable housing. 

Yet as the redevelopment of nearby downtown Los Angeles has brought with it a wave of gentrification, many residents now find themselves in a difficult situation — especially seniors.

For the past six months, alongside my husband and collaborator, photographer Bear Guerra, I have been documenting what it’s like to grow old in a few of these ethnically diverse neighborhoods. We’ve been spending time with longtime residents who have shared their personal stories about loneliness and depressionimmigration and poverty. From one story to the next, our project has been able to capture the nuances of growing old in a big city. These are stories about people who, among other things, are looking for a sense of purpose after retirement, or who are, quite simply, looking for reasons to get out of the house

Spending a lot of time talking and tagging along — before we got to interviewing —afforded us a special kind of intimacy with our subjects that would ultimately shape our project. And as we talked to seniors from Lincoln Heights to South LA, no other issue bubbled up to the surface as often and as urgently as the lack of safe and affordable housing in Los Angeles.

May 2016 study from the California Housing Partnership Corporation found that more than 500,000 affordable units would need to be built in Los Angeles in order to accommodate the city’s large working-class population. What’s more, L.A. renters would need to earn 3.9 times the local minimum wage to afford the average monthly rent of $2,108. This is especially troubling for seniors, who are often dependent on Social Security or Supplemental Security Income that ranges between $800 and $1,000 a month.

Early on in our project, we identified local grassroots activists — many of them seniors themselves — who have a good sense of the needs in their neighborhoods. They were instrumental in helping us understand the plight of seniors in ethnically diverse communities, and they introduced us to many of the people who would later be featured in our stories. Furthermore, we collaborated with great Cantonese and Mandarin-speaking interpreters — and we used our own Spanish-skills — to make sure we could connect to first-generation seniors with limited English.

One thing we discovered as we set out to find our stories was that L.A. seniors were eager to talk: Most told us they’d never been asked about their unique perspective. They shared with us a feeling of being “invisible” to others, and the perception that most media coverage “infantilized” them.  

One story that struck us as especially important is how a shortage of affordable housing is affecting longtime residents, many of them seniors, who would prefer to remain in their home of choice as long, as safely, and as independently as possible — a practice known as aging in place

“Because of the buildout of the public transit system, the neighborhoods that have been historically low-income, predominantly minority, are now starting to feel the pressure,” said Jacqueline Waggoner, vice-president of Enterprise Community Partners Inc., a national organization advocating for affordable housing. 

On average, extremely low-income seniors are paying 83 percent of their monthly income in rent, leaving little money for food, transportation, health expenses, and other needs. 

Not surprisingly, high rents are leading to the displacement of seniors. In Chinatown, for example, 95 percent of households are renters, so people there are particularly vulnerable. In nearby Lincoln Heights, the situation is similar for working-class and immigrant elders.

One of the groups that was crucial in allowing us to meet vulnerable seniors is Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), a grassroots organization that helps tenants learn their rights and helps seniors find affordable housing, subsidized meals and other resources.

“A lot of seniors, they want to age and die in their home,” said Phyllis Chiu, a CCED volunteer and retired elementary school teacher in Chinatown. We met Chiu at a building in Lincoln Heights where a few Chinese senior tenants were facing eviction from the single occupancy rooms where they’d lived for the past 15 years. 

The rooms were small and cramped, and it was clear that the building needed some renovations. However, Mrs. Yeung and the Wongs, all in their eighties, could not afford rents higher than what they pay now — around $375 a month — and the prospect of having to find an affordable home this late in life was very stressful for them, if not impossible.

“We think, well, this isn’t really an ideal place to live, but I guess they have lived there for so long that they consider it their home,” explained Chiu. “And so that’s where they want to be. They don’t want to die in a hospital, they don’t want to die in a convalescent home. They don’t want to have to move.”

The problem is growing: Senior advocates say they’re seeing more evictions of longtime residents in rent-controlled units, as well as more of what’s known as “cash for keys” — where landlords offer money to tenants so they can move out sooner.

A few weeks ago, we received some good news: An attorney at Public Counsel, the nation’s largest pro-bono law firm, had heard one of our stories and announced that it would assist L.A. senior advocates by providing research into policies, regulations and anti-eviction strategies for older people. As we move forward with our project, with five more months of storytelling to go, we’re encouraged to see our reporting raise awareness and spur discussion of real solutions.


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