I showed up to meet Marcus Robinson and his girlfriend, Brittney Price, on a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles. They invited me into their home, where they had just signed the lease. They told me it was a challenge to land this place just a few blocks from downtown.
Robinson and Price are both freelance artists. Like many, the pandemic hit them hard financially. They had several film projects canceled or postponed, so finding a place to live with no guaranteed income was nearly impossible.
"It's expensive," Robinson said. He moved to L.A. from New York City years ago, so the rent prices haven't been a shock, but it is still no small undertaking.
"First month, last month, security deposit," he recalled. "Easily paying over $5,000 just to move in."
In 2021, rent rose a whopping 14% across the country, according to Redfin.com. Los Angeles ranked in the top 10 cities with the highest average rent at $3,394, a nearly 10% increase from the year prior.
"Los Angeles is among the worst affordability in the country," said Richard Green, Ph.D., director of University of Southern California's Lusk Center for Real Estate. "Renters do want to pay their rent. The problem is they can't."
Green and a few faculty members from University of California, Los Angeles did a study during the pandemic, surveying renters on how they were paying rent. They found that renters who weren't paying fell in one of two categories: They lost their job or came down with COVID-19.
"Things like the stimulus checks were instrumental in allowing people to stay current on their rent," said Green.
Before the pandemic, Robinson and Price lived separately, but their only option to make ends meet was to move in together and share a one-bedroom duplex. The duplex isn't their long-term goal, but it's allowing them to pay off debt accumulated over the past few years.
"When the pandemic hit, everyone I know either moved in with a roommate or moved back in with their family," Price said. "It's just now that people are starting to go back out, but then finding out that rent is crazy."
Green says supply and demand is one of the main reasons rents are continuing to go up. There are not enough apartments available for rent. While adding more units seems like an obvious solution, that takes time and a desire by developers to build more properties, a challenge in a congested city like L.A., where they’ve historically built out, not up. Green suggests allowing more multifamily units on the same land so two or more families can live on a single lot.
Owning a multifamily home was once Brittany's dream, but her desires have shifted with the pandemic.
"For a minute, the law wasn't on the landlord's side. OK, no one is paying rent," she said. "Landlords are in the same boat as the tenants. It's just made things a lot more complicated as far as whether I wanted to be a landlord or not."
Green said more needs to be done to help couples like Robinson and Price. "Thinking about permanently expanding rental assistance, but also figuring out how to do it in an efficient way — you have to make it easy to use it."