By Ann Sterzinger
In which a refugee from whatever the hell Chicago has become prepares to confront whatever the hell LA has become.
Yes, it’s very easy to get shot through the head if you stay in Chicago. Or raped through the ass, eye, vag, head, or elbow. But if you want to move to the real second city, get ready for a real trip to the third world. Well, unless you have $3000 you can spend every month on rent.
How bad is the rental market in Los Angeles? Whatever you imagine the level of befucklement to be, double it, and there’s your low-water mark. It rises.
True, the prices for rental listings aren’t as bad as San Francisco or New York City. Per Rentcafe, Los Angeles is merely the fifth most-expensive metro area in the US. (And if you’re looking to buy — ba ha ha! — 81 percent of San Fran’s homes are worth a million or more, whereas “only” about a fifth of LA’s housing stock is valued in the million-plus range.)
But Los Angeles governs a bigger, more patchwork landscape than its superiors in the rent-gouging race. The top end of the rental market in LA is heavily loaded, but so is the bottom; if you wanted to see the middle class get wiped out in real time, you’ve come to the right place.
If you want a safe no-frills apartmentfor a reasonable price, you have come to the WRONG place. Your choices: trash castle, or actual castle. On the ocean shore, you can live in a hippie Star Trek bungalow, where the art installment wipes your ass for you.
But in the darkling reeds — on deceptively pretty streets where the new class of AirBnLandlords pack dozens of bodies into formerly middle-class villas — the lower end is thick as mud, and about as clear. The wedge disappears under the flowering hedges: a menacing bassline that hides from sunlight and statistics.
You think I’m only talking about the tent cities and trash castles you see in the news, right? But the famous homeless encampments — the pop-up architecture that’s spread from Skid Row to nearly every underpass, from the Korean embassy to the doorstep of the financial district — are only the visible, extreme tip of the shitberg.
Yeah, schizos carving their own drug dens out of dried rat corpses on the sidewalk are spectacular. It’s possible for any old crack addict to get a multi-room palace complete with kitchen, if you want to build it yourself, live in shit, catch the plague, and don’t care that everyone who walks past either pities you, hates you, or both. But then there’s the unregulated rental industry.
The AirBnB homeless — the underhoused. The untold thousands of once-perfectly-sane and hopeful kids from Ohio who now live in triple-decker bunkbeds in unregulated flophouses. Thanks to the recessed, hedged, and private architecture of so many houses in SoCal, their ability to cough up $15 a night, and their own shame and quiet desperation, these “kids” (I’ve met 50-year-olds from Bumblefuck who have been here since they were 20 and still think that big role is right around the corner) are conveniently invisible.
The numbers are probably staggering, if you could pin them down. After all, LA doesn’t just draw dreamers from Central and South America. The prettiest dreamers from rural America (and some of the ugly ones who think they’re talented enough to beat the odds) immigrate into the show-biz slaughterhouse as well.
And then they have to live somewhere.
All of them have to live somewhere. Think about that.
It’s a traffic crash, and there are untold throngs flying under the radar. It’s not a unified narrative; AirBnB provides a solution for every problem it causes — but the solutions are also new problems. You can’t afford an apartment because AirBnB took half the housing stock off the long-term market? Well, most AirBnB landlords are only too happy to rent to you for six months at a time. And hey — no security deposit! But you’re encouraging them to yank more and more properties off the rental market. And oh yeah: triple bunkbeds as a long-term housing situation are depressing beyond measure, especially since most of these AirBnBs are full of rules that whittle your personal space and access to amenities (like not having a dirty ass)down to near-zero.
These non-tenants’ lifestyle entails pluses and minuses: If you’re willing to live in a cloud of other people’s farts, LA is actually kinda cheap. And if you want to dismiss this star-crossed striving for stardom as a wypeepo problem, don’t; actually, it seems those kids from Virginia and Ohio who wanted to be movie stars and wound up in flops are disproportionately black.
I say “it seems” because I can’t tell you the proportions when I can’t find a total. It’s hard to trust what few stats you can find, even on the price of a room for a night, as you can see when you try to look up AirBnB’s own estimates, much less the laughably out-of-date info you’ll get from public services. Even if you’re fudging it as best you can via Airbnb’s numbers, there are still people who go around the platforms to save money and do shady handshake deals, hoping not to wake up on the street.
So, alas, further illumination must enter empirically but anecdotally through the eyes of an asshole who recently made the giant error of moving to fuckin’ La-La Land — me.
This happened despite my cerebral cortex, which I used to think was standard-issue. But after this fuckup, I’m pretty sure it’s made of congealed adrenaline and shredded Brett Favre jerseys. So inside the lesson about California real estate (which might be kind of dry anyway), we’re going to stack a lesson about fear.
I used to think people who moved to Los Angeles to become movie stars were delusional. I laughed at the pretty girls who fell off the turnip truck and into the porn grinder.
I didn’t come here to be on the big screen. I’m even dumber than that.
I thought I was going to get cheap rent. RIM SHOT!
I left Chicago in a hurry, as I was a crime victim with the perp still on the loose, and I was panicked for a place to go. But I came here in particular because I thought I had a cheap deal on rent.
Who’s the idiot now? Who put smack in my coffee? What was I thinking?
The Signs Are Usually in Front of Your Damn Eyes
PANIC PANIC PANIC: I had to leave Chicago. Aside from the daft weather, I was raped in my apartment there at the end of last August. Since the cops failed to arrest the thing that did it, I was afraid it would circle back to my apartment and kill me this time to shut me up. I had already spent the duration of the crime assuming I’d be murdered on the spot; nothing like going into a brutal Chicago winter with death on the mind.
The logical place for an asshole who can’t drive a car and who associates Chicago with being choked to death is New York. But a friend in LA said a friend of his had a room to let for $500 in his dump of a guesthouse.
I thought about the weather. And $500. Fine, La-La Land it is. Everything about LA is totally at odds with what I thought of as my personality… except that year-round 70 degree guarantee.
The guesthouse deal was completely black market, as I suspect any reasonable-sounding rental in Los Angeles must be; nothing that’s advertised publicly is going at a sane rate, apart from scams. This is why it’s hard to trust the stats — and why you’re being subjected to my subjective point of view. I know what I know, and it gives me a vague outline of the iceberg of stuff I don’t know.
Alas, when I said I definitely wanted to move in, and that I had given up on looking for places in New York, the $500 rent suddenly shot up to $800 — oh, and the landlord wanted a security deposit and a utility deposit. He — well, let’s call him Hammer Man, as hammering things is his only skill; Hammer Man had this little fantasy that he was going to fix up the guesthouse, and then he could get $1600 free and easy a month by renting it to the two of us.
I had seen the place on a previous visit, and it didn’t need a little fix-up — it needed a backhoe. It had once been swank, but then Hammer Man turned into a hoarder. He kept his own house in the front pristine, but dumped his psyche into his rental unit-to-be. Well, I thought… if it took another $300 a month to clear out the defunct printers from 1993 and make the guest house livable, so be it.
I didn’t realize yet that Hammer Man is one of those typical full-of-shit West Coast dudes. Californians rarely do what they say they will. (This is why half the city is just there to shoot the movie they still think they’re going to be in next month.) But they sure as shit are capable of standing with their hand out for money.
LA Rent Hell 101
If you live somewhere reasonable, you may be wondering: Gee, $800 is kind of a lot. How much do people normally pay to live in LA?
The average rent in LA — not a beachfront property, not a fancy-ass castle, just the average rent — is guesstimated at around 23–2400 dollars for a one-bedroom. You could peacefully support a heroin habit and a couple of illegitimate children on that.
Several months and several heartbreaks later, I’ve found that $1300 is the cheapest shoebox studio you’re going to get that actually has a kitchen sink; you still feel like a sap paying that, but at least you don’t have to eat your cat.
It gets cheaper in the black market, but you need connections to get into unlisted leases, which most kids coming in to chase Kermit the Frog to the Rainbow Connection have not.
By contrast, you can stay in a filthy AirBnB for $15 a night (less if you’re willing to literally shovel shit). That, my friends, is roughly $465 a month… about as much as I currently pay just for the toilet in my apartment. You don’t need connections; you just need a browser, and the stomach to set your max nightly price at $20. Isn’t AirBnB for vacations?, you’re wondering. Ha ha ha! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
At $800, Hammer Man’s unregulated hot mess was still far below what you would pay in the regulated market: the number of legally registered apartment units in LA that rent for a grand (!!!) or less is fast approaching zero (!!!), according to Rentcafe. More than half are over $2000. That’s $24,000 in post-tax income gone before you can even pay your electric bill or buy ramen.
Part II gets far worse, but here’s your spoiler: there is a moral to the story, sort of. Or at least there’s something to be learned here: if something is cheaper than 99 percent of its competition, there’s probably something wrong with it. Really wrong. Filth aside, I had to share the guesthouse with a psycho roommate. I didn’t know yet quite how nuts he was.
There were so many red flags, I wish I were a bull. At least I would have gored someone.
And in between these two hovel-filled hells, I was unwittingly in heaven, at least heaven for people who can drive a car. Oops.