My family pays rent, not a mortgage

When the Great Recession began in 2007 a majority of working people felt it; and, as the law of politics dictates, thus was born their activism, their cause. Shortly thereafter a series of events occurred, including the housing bubble burst later that year and the stock market crash in 2008. All of this was caused primarily by the hands of finance firms, lending banks and government and Federal Reserve regulators that acted in complicity by either standing idle or collaborating. This is all history now.

And, so, a movement was born. These well-meaning people championed and advocated for the rights of homeowners against criminal and unethical lenders, against fraudulent foreclosures, student loan debt, repelling Citizens United, the movement to label GMO foods, third party advocacy, legalizing marijuana, getting back on the gold standard and a myriad of different causes, some related, others not so much.

Families, having enjoyed the chance of purchasing a house, sending their kids off to college, working in and living a middle-class American life were now almost suddenly losing it all.

Many began being sympathetic to the growing Occupy movement. Or they joined the Tea Party or the Libertarian Party. Or they started following Ron Paul and the libertarian movement. People became political.

Several in-depth documentaries were produced on the Great Recession, such as Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Inside Job” narrated by Matt Damon, “Too Big to Fall” and “Collapse.” Several books and articles were written in response to this including Richard Wolff’s “Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism,” Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism” and “No Logo,” among others.

Much to the credit of most critical journalists, thinkers and activists, a vast majority of people began focusing their attention to the robbed homeowners, the scammed mortgage-payers, the disillusioned American dreamers, the disenfranchised middle-class.

But what of those that never owned a home during the Great Recession? What of those that didn’t have a home to lose? What of the working poor permanent renters?

My family has never owned their home. And they most likely never will. We’ve been apartment dwellers for all of my life, 31 years. A truth that hits hard but over the years has settled into a sad truth.

Through the 80s and 90s and now well into 2014, each month, they don’t pay a mortgage. They pay rent. They work-and by they, I mean my mom. My dad’s company, Precision Dynamics Corporation, a California-based identification wristband manufacturer, was one of the hundreds of companies that has offshored, or outsourced its departments to other countries with less regulations and a lower wage standard. He worked out of their San Fernando location.

Prior to the recession, when I was still living with my family, we rented a two-bedroom apartment in Van Nuys, a poor-to-working-class neighborhood with random pockets of suburban corners. We were there shortly after I graduated high school and began going to Los Angeles Valley College, a local community college. We were evicted after it was found out that my younger brother was a gang member and rumors were spreading that he was allegedly selling drugs. In spite of evidence or an investigation, our landlady promptly gave us our eviction notice and we, then, moved into another apartment in the same neighborhood. But significantly pricier. There was no way of avoiding this. We had a fixed rent of around $500 since my family had been living there since I was a baby, a total of more than 20 years. My brother and I shared a room and my parents and two baby brothers shared a room. It was a small place but we made it work. When we all moved into the next apartment I didn’t have to share my room – unfortunately, it was due to the fact that my younger brother was in-and-out of jail and prison for the next several years.

I eventually moved out and thus began my own trail of renting apartments.

This is the story of a majority of working poor people in this country. People that lived paycheck-to-paycheck. They entertain the idea of one day owning their own home, but know better. Although their education is limited, they know basic math. And if you’re pulling in $10-an-hour job, and so is your wife or husband (if you’re lucky enough to have one), raising two, three or four kids, collectively pulling in $50-to-$60,000 a year, paying off the inevitable debt that plagues the poor, you simply can’t afford a home.

The banks and lenders will sometimes lie and say that you do and give you a high-risk loan, a well-documented fact that happened to thousands of people in the U.S. who had the courage or determination to attempt in taking part in the American Dream. But my family didn’t. We knew better than to dream.

It’s one thing to be working poor and it’s another to be working poor in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation: Los Angeles County. Similar to Christian Gabriel’s article in trying to find the American Dream in New York City, the high-cost of living and rent (or mortgage) in a costly city such as Los Angeles is disastrous.

Los Angeles County is ranked as one of the world’s largest economies, with a GDP larger than Switzerland, Sweden and Saudi Arabia, according to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. Additionally, as one of the most populated counties in all of the U.S., the cost of living is significantly higher than a lot of places in the country. Naturally, LA County has the highest number of renters than any other part in the nation. A direct result in the rising cost of homeownership, more county residents turn to renting as the cheapest alternative with the median price for a three-bedroom home in LA County being $417,333, according to an LA Times article which used 2013 fourth quarter reports by RealtyTrac, a real estate information company.

So it makes sense. You can’t afford a $300,000 home so you rent. According to Curbed Los Angeles, a real estate and neighborhood news website, the mortgage on a three-bedroom house would be $1,987, which is $100 more than it would be to rent a similar home. It’s more realistic, being poor and working, to rent. Plain and simple.

As a first-generation college graduate of Mexican descent, my parents are proud. I’m the oldest son. The second to graduate from college, a B.A. in journalism. I’ve had amazing internship experiences with non-profits and news companies. I’m enjoying the position of communications and outreach coordinator for a social justice non-profit, Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. My younger brother also graduated from college, and one brother is in the Marines and the other just got accepted to my alma mater, California State University of Northridge. We’re on the right track but our economy, our system, doesn’t put people like us in the position of homeownership, of economic affluence and stability.

For the working poor, the American dream is far removed, a distant promise that many immigrants were lured by. But more and more Latino immigrants have given up on this, on the idea of buying a home, according to an article by New American Media. In fact, several real estate agencies, such as Viventa and Union Andina in New York, are using this to their advantage and renting apartments to Latino immigrants and advertising the ability to buy cheaper houses in their home countries.

When my parents and I talk about owning a house, which is less frequent than ever before, what is becoming more plausible is returning to Mexico, to our hometown of Jerez, Zacatecas, and owning a home there.

This idea of owning a home is not American; it’s universal. It’s meant to be understood as an heirloom, something that can be passed down from generation to generation. A purchased home to a new family, a new generation, offers the privilege of not having to pay rent or a mortgage. But as most dreams, it’s a reality that only exists as an idea.

But from the family-unit idea of a home, maybe it’s OK for that dream to come to an end. Instead of looking at homeownership as something between a small selection of individuals, perhaps a better idea is collective homeownership and living. Instead of an average small four-member family living in a home, it could be two or three multiple families all sharing one house, one mortgage, making one home. Instead of looking at a house as an individual family heirloom to be passed down, it can be reinterpreted as a viable method for collective living.

As our turbulent economy continues to rise and dip, it makes more sense to re-examine several things, for the sake of survivability.

Photo: A typical apartment building of the older neighborhoods in the City of Los Angeles (downtowngal/CC).




Luis Rivas
Luis Rivas

Luis Rivas is a native of Los Angeles who lives in Echo Park and works in the San Fernando Valley.  He currently edits the non-fiction online literary journal