By David Culver and Nicole Barron
At 26, Ixchel Hernandez has become the defender and protector of her family’s modest apartment. In the two decades they’ve lived in their Los Angeles home, the family of four has successfully fought against multiple attempts aimed at pricing and, ultimately, forcing them out.
“We are human beings with the right to live in our home, and that’s just frankly what every person… in every home and [in] every building should know … they have the right to have their own space, to have their home,” Hernandez said.
But, across the country, affordable housing is becoming increasingly rare to find. The lack of housing inventory, coupled with inflation and zoning inequalities, has required families to stretch more to find housing — and even priced out most families, especially those who start with little-to-no capital of their own.
Ixchel’s parents moved to the United States from Mexico in hopes of giving her and her brother opportunities and a safe environment. Her father, Jose Hernandez, never wanted to give the family’s various landlords a reason to evict them over the years, and he dreamed of owning his own home one day.
“Thank God we never failed to pay our rent,” he said. But in order to keep up with rising rents, both parents worked and even opened up their home to another family for a brief time. Ixchel remembers six people crammed into their one-bedroom apartment.
“It shouldn’t have to be that way where you’re kind of fighting for space or you’re going to have to move so far out of LA to be able to have a home,” she said.
To purchase a house in more than 75% of the nation’s most populous cities, an average family needs to spend at least 30% of their annual income on housing. In cities like Miami, New York and Los Angeles, that number surges to more than 80% of an average family’s annual income.
Home ownership for the Hernandez family, and so many others, has felt like a fading American dream. That is until they discovered a Civil Rights era approach that helps promote home ownership, particularly among minority groups, who are disproportionately impacted by the affordable housing crisis. It’s called a Community Land Trust, or CLT.
“We’re operated by residents who actually live in our building… [as well as] folks from the communities that we’re serving,” said Kasey Ventura of the Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust. “My interest in this work, outside of just preserving housing and affordable housing, is preserving culture in a community.”
A CLT is essentially a nonprofit organization that buys the land on which a building sits, thereby allowing a community’s residents to collectively manage it. Some residents eventually choose to form a co-op with their neighbors and take ownership of their buildings, renting the land.
The Hernandez family and their neighbors embraced the concept. This year they joined the Beverly-Vermont CLT, one of at least five in Los Angeles and more than 200 nationwide. The process requires neighbors to meet regularly over several months before ultimately unanimously agreeing on various terms so as to finalize the trust. Ixchel now sits on the board of her building’s management; it’s in the final stages of ownership transfer to the co-op.
“What’s important is that we’re now owners!” said Ixchel’s mother, Guadalupe Santiago. “But it’s also important to remember it was not easy,” her father cautioned.
“It may not seem like a lot to a lot of folks that have money or come from money,” Ixchel said. “[But] we are just as much trying to build that generational wealth.”
A US housing shortage
According to 2019 figures, the United States was roughly 3.8 million homes short of what was needed to house families. That is more than double the number from a decade earlier. California has the largest housing deficit of any other state, requiring an estimated million more homes to meet housing demands.
“We don’t necessarily view housing as a need that everybody should have. And that’s key… in this work,” said Kasey Ventura, who helps run the Beverly-Vermont Community Land Trust in Los Angeles.
While CLTs are a solution, Ventura admits there are — and should be — other affordable housing options to adequately address the crisis.
In Southern California, there is growing demand for construction and rental of ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units. Also called “carriage homes,” the converted garages or newly built smaller structures sit adjacent to existing homes and are on the same property. The mostly studio or one-bedroom apartments provide a more affordable option to many who prefer to live or work in areas that might otherwise be too expensive.
Others have advocated for utilizing unoccupied homes. There are dozens of vacant houses, in some cases, sitting just a few blocks from several homeless encampments lining many Los Angeles sidewalks. However, efforts to transform them into affordable housing in some neighborhoods have proven controversial among existing homeowners.
Another route undertaken by some companies is Employer-Assisted Housing. Although they have only finished a portion of what they initially pledged, in recent years corporations like Google, Meta and Apple have promised to spend billions of dollars on some 40,000 new homes in California. The initiative began in order to combat soaring home prices in the Bay Area, while also recruiting and retaining talent who needed more affordable housing options, along with a shorter commute to the office.
“Just to be able to be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna wake up, take a walk down the street and come to work.’ I mean that’s awesome!” said Matthew Johnson, an employee of Factory_OS in Vallejo, California, which already plans to provide workforce housing options to its workers in the coming years. However, unlike other companies, Factory_OS employees will build their own homes.
‘We’re building houses for the people who need them’
In a space once used to build US Navy submarines during World War II, Larry Pace now operates Factory_OS outside San Francisco. He co-founded the company with Rick Holliday to address the worsening housing shortage.
“That we’ve repurposed a building that was once for instruments of war, [so as] to [now] create affordable and supportive housing…. I don’t know how much cooler that can be,” said Pace.
Factory_OS puts homebuilding onto an assembly line and produces fully finished modular units within two weeks. From insulation and drywall to flooring, fixtures and paint, all of it is prefabricated within the confines of the factory before it’s trucked to a site for assembly.
“We’ve created an IKEA for the manufacturing of homes,” said Pace. “Then we put the pieces together.”
When hoisted by a crane and stacked like sophisticated Legos, the modular units combine to make entire apartment buildings. Pace maintains there are massive cost-savings and huge efficiencies in moving homebuilding into a factory setting compared with on-site construction.
“We’re building houses for the people who need them, for the people who have been struggling to be able to support their families or pay rent or pay bills,” said Johnson, as he placed support beams for a roof of one of the units.
The 38-year-old Factory_OS employee and father of five was once homeless, and he said he often thinks about the families who will one day live under the roof he’s assembling. w
“Every morning I wake up, I’m grateful… that I come home from work and there are my kids waiting for me,” said Johnson.
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