By Matthew Kredell
USC students did not know what to expect when they entered people’s homes to conduct a survey on how renters are coping with housing unaffordability. Once, they were offered tacos; another time, soap from the family business. One woman got emotional as she talked about having lived in her home for 30 years, raising her son and grandchildren there, and was now being forced to move because the property had been deemed unlivable.
“Along with heartwarming stories, we would also talk to people and hear the emotional stresses placed on them because of changing cities,” said Lena Shapiro, a junior at USC Price. “It added another layer to my studies in real estate development. Being able to interact with residents through the survey increased my level of empathy and consideration for developments and their role in shaping the city.”
Shapiro was one of more than 50 USC graduate and undergraduate students to take part in a study on household-level impacts of rental cost burdens in Los Angeles conducted by a team of researchers from the USC Price Center for Social Innovation.
The Center released the first set of findings from the study on Dec. 15, focusing on adjustments and cutbacks people are making as a result of high rental costs in Los Angeles. The study was conducted through a survey across two Promise Zones: the Los Angeles Promise Zone (LAPZ) in Central L.A. and the South Los Angeles Transit Empowerment Zone (SLATE-Z) in South L.A.
“What existing research has told us is that outcomes are worse if you are facing higher levels of rent burden, but what studies haven’t told us previously is the mechanisms in which households have to adjust and how those adjustments affect them in the short term and long term,” said Gary Painter, director of the Price Center. “This study presents a holistic picture of what individuals, households and families are doing to cope with rent burden.”
Conducting the survey
The Price Center had previously conducted focus groups on how people responded to rent burdens, which brought out powerful stories of its effect on Los Angeles residents.
Rent burden occurs when households pay more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities – now the majority of renters in many urban areas, including Los Angeles.
After the focus groups, the Center applied for a grant to conduct a door-to-door household survey to produce actionable data that could inform local policy and the work of community organizations.
With funding from the Haynes Foundation and USC Lusk Center for Real Estate, Painter, former assistant professor of research Jovanna Rosen, postdoctoral research fellow Soledad De Gregorio, and USC Price PhD candidate Sean Angst led the study.
They developed the survey questions, hired and trained more than 40 USC undergraduate students to conduct the surveys, created walking routes and troubleshooted issues the surveyors might come across, such as an uncooperative landlord.
“It was a huge opportunity to be involved in running a project of that size and importance,” De Gregorio said. “We were involved in every single stage, from putting together questions to buying tablets, hiring students, training them, and going out in the field and conducting surveys.”
Students conducted in-person surveys of 794 renter households between January and October of 2019.
“I’m grateful to the Price Center and USC for having such a great and talented pool of undergrads, and I’m hoping they now have research experience that will look good on their resume for grad school,” Rosen said. “I had no idea when I was an undergrad what a project like this was even like.”
Surveying was conducted six days a week, both weekends and weekdays, during four-hour shifts. Each shift had a team of 10-to-12 student surveyors who broke off into pairs to approach their list of addresses. Each survey took approximately 50 minutes, conducted in English or Spanish. People received a $20 gift card from Target for participating in the survey.
“It was cool to be on the front lines of research,” said Scott Korinke, a junior at USC Price working toward a progressive Master of Public Policy degree. “As a student, I’ve read a bunch of research, and I know people have to collect this data, but you don’t get this hands-on experience in a class. As a transplant to Los Angeles, I learned a lot about the city and the people who live here.”
Connecting with the people of Los Angeles
The students were paid for their work and got valuable experience not usually available at the undergraduate level.
“The survey provided the opportunity for students to get to know their neighbors at a very basic level and understand what community-based research looks like,” Painter said. “I think that will prove to be a valuable experience that helps on the job market as they move on in their careers, but also in how they ought to approach their work.”
Shapiro found it surprising how many people were willing to invite the students into their homes and share their stories.
“Especially with social media and technology, where interactions normally occur online, it’s surprising to have these natural interactions, person to person, with people willing to talk about their experiences and challenges,” Shapiro said. “A lot of places we surveyed, I actually had never been before even though I’ve lived here all my life. It was interesting to explore all these different parts of Los Angeles.”
De Gregorio recalled one woman who lived in a tiny studio apartment in South L.A. with her daughter, son-in-law and their two kids.
“It was very clear it wasn’t ideal, but they were trying their best to get out of that situation,” De Gregorio said. “People were inviting you into their homes, telling you about their lives, and it was eye opening to see how different people live.”
Key findings in first report
The newly released report looks into the critical differences that exist among people who live in different geographical contexts, the differences in the effect of rent burden between immigrants and U.S.-born individuals, and how people facing rent burden deal with unexpected expenses.
A vast majority of renters are facing enormous stress, going without basic necessities like food, clothing and transportation, and cutting back on important dimensions of life in order to afford their rent.
“A lot of academic research has shown that displacement does occur, but what we didn’t know a lot about is how the people who are staying are doing so,” Rosen said. “What our study shows is that they’re doing so but experiencing enormous stress. It’s impacting people’s lives, and people who pay more in rent likely are making cutbacks elsewhere.”
Key findings include:
“I think our main finding is how vulnerable families are,” De Gregorio said. “How many of them really are one unexpected bill away from not being able to pay rent or for basic necessities.”
Translating data into policy change
One reason the Center chose Promise Zone areas for the survey is that they have strong networks of organizations to help push for policy change and utilize data from the survey.
Painter said he hopes the study informs public policy and community organizations regarding areas where people in Los Angeles need the most help as a result of rent burdens.
“The study suggests that there can be interventions to address what people are facing because of rent burden,” Painter said.
Economic effects from the COVID-19 pandemic that followed the survey add more gravity to the findings, particularly the difficulty many rent-burdened households indicated they would have from a modest unexpected cost.
“There’s a lot of talk about the eviction crisis caused by people becoming unemployed as a result of COVID,” Rosen said. “Our study showed most renters already were facing tremendous stress, so we have broader problems in the housing market that means we just can’t turn back to status quo. We have to think about how to create policies and support community organizations to create a new normal where renters aren’t facing such precarious conditions. We have reason to suspect that this has gotten so much worse in the past few months.”
More analysis of survey data to come
This report represents the beginning of analysis that will be done in the years to come on the rich household data collected by the USC students.
Painter expects that the center will produce at least four more reports from the survey, with two of those expected in 2021.
Angst is also basing his PhD dissertation around data from the survey, and other research, to build new narratives around housing affordability based on residents’ lived experience.
“As a PhD student and someone who is trying to grapple with policy and think about what comes next, I always want my work to be from the ground up and have the research I put out in the world to be informed by voices living through this firsthand,” Angst said. “Having the agency to develop a protocol and lead a project of this scale and magnitude was great for me as a young scholar.”
Future topics will include how people’s networks are affected by increasing rent burden and how rent increases in a general area affect landlord harassment and maintenance for long-time residents who stay in the area.
“The data that we collected has only begun to be mined for critical insights,” Painter said.